Adapted from Patrick Ness’ low fantasy young adult novel, J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls displays both a formal and thematic aptitude that is a rarity of its genre. Make no mistake: it’s a film that deals with the obvious, explicitly contending with themes of guilt and death in a blunt and direct manner. It may leave you yearning for a film that operates with more subtly. It was a feeling I produced during at least half of A Monster Calls’ runtime. But this is a film with a very persuasive emotional tenor, one that leaves you to consider your own capacity to deal with the obvious (the certainty of death) and the emotional equipment required to handle loss. I think there is something very admirable about a film that confronts its audience with such a reality, if only to expose how ill-equipped we are in dealing with the decay of a loved one before our eyes.
The film opens with a crescendo, as Conor (Lewis MacDougall) stirs from a nightmare that will serve as the apex of his emotional journey. The details accumulate rapidly as Conor is largely left to his own devices, as his mother (Felicity Jones) lays in bed in poor health following her chemotherapy. The opening passage outlines Conor’s routine eloquently, isolating his character in an exhibition of melancholia that is so often disregarded as a purely adult reality – it’s a largely dialogue-free exercise, yet doesn’t call attention to itself. But whereas Conor may contend with bullying at school and the deteriorating health of his mother (along with a missing paternal figure), he remains a warm figure; numerous scenes involve Conor at work, drawing, that highlight the importance of such a creative outlet. And there’s a remarkably tender moment shared early in the film where he and his mother watch Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong that serves to underscore where Bayona’s interests and inspirations rest.
Bayona is a proven filmmaker, with The Orphanage and The Impossible possessing a formal rigor that far outweighed the thematic integrity of the scripts he adapts. A Monster Calls closes that gap a bit, as the source material is fundamentally more demanding of its audience than the Del Toro-lite components of The Orphanage or the cultural misappropriation of The Impossible. With A Monster Calls, Bayona’s classicism falls thematically in line with Ness’ material, in part because Ness’ novel reads like an augmentation of traditional Hollywood monster films, from the aforementioned King Kong to James Whales’ The Invisible Man and Frankenstein.
The selling point of the picture, the Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) that is summoned at precisely 12:07, provides Bayona with the ideal outlet for his more macabre tendencies, composing a digital effect that seamlessly integrates with the dreariness of the English milieu. It’s the most effective replication of the Spielberg-aesthetic I’ve seen in some time, and certainly more convincing than say Jeff Nichols’ attempt earlier this year with Midnight Special. This praise comes from someone who is more or less allergic to the Spielbergian approach of rousing sentiment; Bayona captures its spirit with great élan.
Though not my preferred mode of filmmaking, I appreciate the sophistication of Bayona’s vision in adapting Ness’ work, with their complementary qualities working exceedingly well. Currently tapped to direct the next installment of the Jurassic World franchise, Bayona has most certainly become a cog of the mainstream Hollywood movie-making machine. But the personal flourishes he exudes in A Monster Calls would suggest that this skilled filmmaker might indeed provide something more challenging than your traditional director-for-hire. At the very least, we can hope.