xXx: Return of Xander Cage
The last forty minutes of the movie do come together in a pretty diverting way.
A lot of colleagues seem to have been under the impression—maybe because of the title combined with the fact that director J.A. Bayona made “The Orphanage”—that this is a straight-up genre film, a conventional monster movie. Boy, were they ever surprised by “A Monster Calls,” which is in fact a metaphorical allegory of childhood, illness, death, and grief. And an often very powerful film.
Based on a novel by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay (the book itself was initially conceived as an idea by the late writer Siobhan Dowd, who is also credited in the film), “A Monster Calls” brings viewers into the ramshackle British household of young Conor and his unnamed mother. Their residence looks out onto a church and graveyard that seem guarded by a giant yew tree. Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a restless, shy, bullied kid who’s an ardent daydreamer, artist—and inchoate monster-movie lover—dreams one night of the tree breaking apart, and yielding a giant man of wood. Tree-men and like figures have deep roots (sorry) in Anglo mythology, but the monster who invades Conor’s dreams—whose insides are animated by terrifying, never-ebbing flames—belongs to Conor alone. Speaking in intimidating intonations supplied by Liam Neeson, the monster informs Conor that he is going to appear to him to tell him three stories. And once the monster’s stories are done, he will command of Conor the kid’s own story, and an ultimate attendant truth that only Conor can articulate.
This situation would seem challenging under the best of circumstances. Of course, the movie understands that the situation wouldn’t arise at all under the best of circumstances. Conor’s mother, a young woman herself, played by Felicity Jones, is direly ill, and has been for some time. She’s a one-time artist who put aside her dreams once Conor was born. The boy’s father, Toby Kebbell, has a whole other life in Los Angeles now. Conor’s grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is a stern intimidating figure who on the outset seems entirely disagreeable. We don’t know it at first, but we suspect it: all the adults in Conor’s family, however well-intentioned, are lying to him. His visits from his tree frenemy help him to reckon with that, albeit in an unconventional way.
When the monster calls, his tendrils wrap around the furniture in Conor’s bedroom, and these tendrils themselves seem to grip the boy as the monster tells fables of kings and queens that end in frustrating paradox, confusing Conor. The boy and his beloved mom have moments of respite, enjoying a 16mm print of the 1933 “King Kong” together, with Mom telling Conor it was a favorite of his late grandfather, who was the only person who could get Grandma to lighten up. These casually dropped bits of history become crucial as the film digs deeper and deeper into the realities of Conor’s situation and the parables of the fantastic figure who helps him deal with that situation, despite Conor’s furious opposition.