****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****
Estimated Reading Time : 5 Minutes 47 Seconds
My Rating : 3 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation : SEE IT. I recommend you see this film either in the theatre if you are a Jungian devotee, or on Netflix or Cable as it is interesting and original enough to be worth watching.
A Monster Calls, directed by J.A. Bayona and written by Patrick Ness based upon his book of the same name, is the story of Conor, a lonely, young boy in a small English town whose mother has cancer. The film stars Lewis MacDougall as Conor, with supporting turns from Felicity Jones as Conor's mother, Sigourney Weaver as his grandmother and Liam Neeson as the voice of the Monster that comes to visit him one night.
I had not heard about A Monster Calls before seeing it and knew nothing of the story. Obviously, I had not read the book it is based upon as well. I had time to kill and there was nothing else playing that fit into my time schedule, so, like a young Native American at the time of his initiation, I made the leap. I am very glad that I did. A Monster Calls is not a perfect film, or even a great one, but it is an interesting film of deep meaning and that is extremely refreshing in the cookie-cutter cinematic culture of today.
The story of A Monster Calls is simple enough, it is a coming of age story where young Conor must go from being a boy to being a man. Conor, like all of us, must be wrenched from his mother's warm bosom (and bed), and thrown into the cold and cruel world to fend for himself. That journey from boy to man is a difficult one under the best of circumstances, but with a cancer-stricken mother as his only ally in the world, Conor's passage becomes a treacherous and desperately lonely one. This is where the Monster is awakened and comes to guide Conor on his path into, and out of, the dark wood of life.
The Monster is really Conor's psychological shadow. Like all of our shadows, the Monster holds all of the scary, repulsive and ugly things and knowledge that Conor does not want to recognize or admit to himself. In A Monster Calls, Conor's Monster is also the only true father figure or genuine male presence to guide and teach young Conor on his perilous trek into masculinity and out of his pre-adolescence. Conor's actual father makes a brief appearance but is a rather sad excuse for a man and is a pretty worthless father, so Conor is forced to get his lessons in manhood from his own Shadow.
What is so interesting about A Monster Calls is that, while it may at times veer into familiar coming-of-age Hollywood rhythms, it never lets go of its overall darker theme. Without a "shadow"of a doubt, this is a shadow movie. There are no simple answers, no short cuts, no soft landings for Conor here, only the complex, layered and unrelentingly cold, dark and realist life lessons taught by the Monster/shadow. This is not a sunshine, rainbows and singing puppy dogs, Disney/Pixar type of film, if it were it would fail to adaquetly impart the lessons it sets out to teach.
This film is a meditation on death, the death of our former selves, the death of our beliefs, of our religion, of our understanding of the world, of our hopes and of our dreams. A Monster Calls is a Jungian exploration of the power of the Monster/shadow that is born of death (both literal and symbolic), that lives within us all and how to release that power by integrating our own personal shadow elements. A great way to enjoy A Monster Calls is to watch it not as a straight forward narrative but rather as a Jungian analyst would analyze one of their own dreams, as the film is, like life, a dream within a dream within a dream.
That said, this film may not be for everyone. It is rated PG-13 and I think it is on an individual basis that parents should judge whether their children should see it. I think thirteen is a good cutoff to even consider seeing it as kids younger than that may be overwhelmed with the darker themes of the film and may find it very disturbing. In addition, adults may not like it either. As I said, this is really a complex, Jungian, shadow-fairy tale about physical, emotional, mental and spiritual death and that isn't going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I enjoyed it but I am self-aware enough to know that others may not feel the same way.
One of the reasons I enjoyed the film is that I have dealt with much death and darkness in my life and I appreciate a film grappling with the deeper meaning of those experiences. I view the world through a Jungian lens and enjoy explorations of the shadow, so this film was right up my alley. Your alley may be much more brightly lit than mine and that is okay, so just be forewarned before you head into see this picture. If the subject matter is something that is unappealing to you, that is okay too, but one thing to consider is that while symbolic death and the shadow may be a "dark" topic, it is also something that we all share together. Each one of us dies a thousand deaths before our final one, and each one of our psyches are inhabited by a thousand shadow Monsters. Our Monsters are what bind us and links us together through the ages from generation to generation. If we couldn't share our Monsters, we wouldn't share anything.
As I previously said, A Monster Calls is not a flawless film, for instance the performances are good enough but not particularly noteworthy with the exception of Lewis MacDougall, and there are some elements of the narrative that fall flat. On the other hand, cinematically, the film is fascinating to look at, particularly the dream/storytelling sequences which are visually dynamic and compelling. To its great credit the film does avoid the trap of sentimentality that these types of films so routinely fall into. Instead of cliches, A Monster Calls has an intriguing message and story that could, emphasis on could, resonate with all sorts of people if they are in the right frame of mind to be able to hear it.
If you are looking for a dark, unique and original modern-day shadow-fairy tale, A Monster Calls is for you. This film contains lessons that each of us need to learn, whether we want to or not. The pilgrimage from boy to man, or for adults, from dusk to dawn during our dark night of the soul, can be a grueling and perilous one, so guidance from our shadow monsters familiar with the terrain of the darkness will be of critical assistance for anyone trying to survive that transition. While most of us would prefer to spend the entirety of our lives in the familiar warmth of the light, we all, at one time or another, will be compelled to make that journey into the cold, foreboding abyss of the mythical dark wood. It would be wise for each of us to familiarize ourselves with our own personal shadow monsters before we make this imperative and unavoidable expedition. As Conor learns in A Monster Calls, and as we all learn when we are forced to make our own similar odyssey, no one ever comes out of those dark woods the way they went in, best to prepare for that journey now while you can. If you don't, you will most certainly regret it when the time comes.