Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Monster Calls Review

When I was a kid, I only associated death with being old. I would hear stories from either my parents lips or the news of a tragedy blaring through the speakers of the television, but none of it would resonate with me. Sometimes I am jealous of that version of me, the one who wasn't scared of anything because even if I didn't consciously think in these terms, I know now that I thought I was invincible.

I don't remember the exact moment this changed. I recall in middle school a murder-suicide happened in my town, a father taking the lives of his wife and children before turning the gun on himself. They named a little league baseball field after the young boy to honor his memory, and I still remember staring at the new sign and the finality of it all sinking in. I remember trying to understand how a dad could do that. I remember being plagued by the thought that that little boy and his sister were probably terrified before their lives were cut so painfully short. Maybe that's when I stopped feeling invincible, when I acknowledged that we are not guaranteed any set number of years. We aren't even guaranteed tomorrow. I remember having a nightmare about a baseball field named after me.

There was a time when my own mortality was the most horrifying thought I could have. That changed when I had a daughter. I never understood fear until I had to be afraid for her safety. Suddenly the world that I once felt invincible living in seemed so scary, with a new and unthinkable danger around every corner. Everyone talks about nonsense like changing diapers and not getting enough sleep at night, but that stuff is so trivial and easy. The first time I truly felt like a parent was when I had to let go, even just a little. When she was invited to play at the neighbor's house and she walked through their door and I didn't follow. When I dropped her off at school and had to trust that the people inside that building would keep her safe, that she would run out of those doors hours later and give me a hug and tell me what she had learned and whether or not she made new friends.

When I read the novel A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, I ran through the first half of the book at home one night and I brought it with me to work the next day to finish it. As the words printed on those final few pages began to seep into my brain, I can still remember the tears falling from my eyes, sitting at my desk with colleagues sitting nearby. This was especially memorable because I had never really been moved by literature before. I am frequently emotional while watching films, easily broken down by the artistry of visual storytelling, but even when dealing with the saddest material imaginable, reading never could get me there until I lost myself in the tragic devastation of A Monster Calls. 

Ness adapted his own novel into the screenplay for the new film from J.A. Bayona whom previously directed movies like The Orphanage and The Impossible, and the cinematic version of A Monster Calls does not disappoint, earning those very same tears all over again through terrific performances from talented child actor Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver, along with an essential vocal performance from Liam Neeson. The story revolves around a young boy named Conor (MacDougall) who is forced to cope with the circumstances around him, a mother (Jones) battling cancer and facing the prospects of having to move in with his grandmother (Weaver) whom he has never quite bonded with. One night when the clock flips to 12:07, a giant tree monster (Neeson) appears and begins speaking with Conor, informing him that he will tell him three stories, and after he is done the fourth story will come from Conor himself, a story revealing his truth, the dark secret he keeps locked up inside but needs to get out if he is ever to properly deal with his grief. Bayona is a master of storytelling on a visual level, frame after frame beautifully composed and the decision to feature mini segments of animation to portray the stories told by the monster added a welcome colorful flare. Ness wrote a beautiful, unforgettable novel and Bayona was a terrific choice to make sure it translated naturally utilizing the possibilities of cinema.

The concept of mortality haunts every inch of A Monster Calls, and as I both read the novel and watched the film I couldn't shake the reminder that nothing is guaranteed, a lesson I learned so long ago, derived from an incomprehensible tragedy. What if something happens to either myself, my wife or both of us? I hope to be there for that beautiful little 9 year old girl for as long as it's humanly possible, but just in case she needs it, I hope she has a monster by her side to grieve with and show her how to be brave.


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