When both of my grandfathers died within two months of each other, I was filled with an anger so hot I didn’t know how to deal. Watching two of the pillars of my life reduced by sickness then lost to death made me want to rip the world to bits with my bare hands. I became self-destructive. I became isolated. I might have seemed fine, but inside lurked fire and fury. This brand of rage burns at the core of the fierce and fantastic fable of grief, A Monster Calls.
Author turned screenwriter Patrick Ness translated his celebrated children’s novel into a stirring screenplay that follows the trials and tragedy befalling a young boy named Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall). This meek and mild-mannered middle schooler is attacked on all sides. At school, bullies target him. At home, he puts on a brave smile as his single mum (Felicity Jones) battles a terminal illness that will slowly but surely rip her away from him. Conor doesn’t want to be another problem for her, so he channels his pain into elaborate sketches of the nearby graveyard, with its stone chapel and a sprawling yew tree that haunts his nightmares.
One night, a low grumble (Liam Neeson’s low grumble!) comes from the graveyard. Branches creak and vines stretch until the yew tree is a towering, tromping, terrifying beast with strong legs, long arms, trailing tendrils, and a hungry fire burning within its hollow eyes and gaping maw. Smashing into the humble O’Malley home, the monster rips Conor out of his room to promises him three visits, each with the telling of a true tale. In return, Conor will have to share his own truth. One he is not ready to face. What seems like a midnight menace quickly evolves into Conor’s coping method. As the world he knows crumbles around him and his mother’s condition grows grave, his visits with the monster become Conor’s sanctuary for screaming and railing against infuriating realities.
Through the monster and its parables, Ness folds in fairy tale elements like beasts, magic, witches, knights, and alchemists to elevate an otherwise simple story of grief. The imagery spun by director J.A. Bayona (best known for the heart-wrenching horror movie The Orphanage) gives this fantasy element a vivid life. Spun of cracking wood and throbbing fire, the monster is the stuff of children’s nightmares, growling, and gruff. But there’s a restraint that keeps him from tipping into adults-only horror. (Still, let the PG-13 warning be enough to keep away your more sensitive kids.) Rich with mood and emotional tension, the live-action sequences sizzle with the threat of the surreal invading at any moment. When it does, the film is brilliantly pitched into a world of animated watercolors as the monster’s stories spill across the screen in sprawling paints and impish flourishes. Then, as a final touch of elegiac elegance, the score by Fernando Velázquez (Crimson Peak, Mama, The Orphanage) plays with tenderness and terror in a way that will pummel your heartstrings.
A Monster Calls is riveting, beautiful, and deeply moving. Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, and Toby Kebbell provide fine supporting performances as Conor’s mum, grandma, and too-often-absent dad. But it’s MacDougall and Neeson who shoulder the film against incredible odds. Neeson breathes a compelling complexity into a monster who is given no name, little backstory, and a remarkable responsibility in carrying its story and message. It might come as little surprise, as he did an excellent job with duality and voice work in The LEGO Movie. But A Monster Calls is something deeper, darker, and far more challenging. Yet Neeson’s growls—sometimes indifferent, sometimes challenging, sometimes soft—provide a sturdy backbone to this tricky tale.
More remarkable is MacDougall, whose only previous performance was as a lost boy in the forgettable flop Pan. Here, he must not only play a child facing down death, but also a young hero facing off against a mysterious monster. Here is a duality of a devotedly decent son and a noble knight filled to his core with anger, because death is not fucking fair. It makes us want to spit fire, and rage against the night, scream into the winds, and tear the world we know to bits. And A Monster Calls tells us that feeling that way is okay. In fact, it’s human and necessary. It’s only by recognizing our anger that we can move past it.
You will weep watching this film. (Bring tissues. All of them.) But more than that, you will connect to Conor’s righteous rage. You might remember the losses you have experienced that cut you to your core, and filled your belly with bubbling fury that threatened to burn you down. Much like Inside Out made the case for the value of sadness, A Monster Calls does the same for anger. And we need it. In this day and age, anger is too often written off as the enemy of joy or a useless, self-indulgent emotion. But Conor’s journey provides audiences with a profound catharsis that allows us to embrace our own monster, our own pain, and to heal along with our hurt little hero.
A Monster Calls opens in limited release December 23rd, and nationwide January 6th.