Childhood is full of monsters.
Fortunately, the vast majority of them are imaginary, vanquished by closing a book or turning off a movie—and getting tucked in by a mom eager to reassure a tender heart that nothing wicked lurks in the closet.
But the monster that Conor’s mom, Lizzie, is facing is dreadfully real: She’s dying of cancer.
Oh, Lizzie’s putting on a brave face to be sure, even as her hair falls out and her body wastes away to nothing. She reassures her son she’s going to make it. She insists everything will be OK after the next round of chemotherapy. The 12-year-old boy desperately wants to believe her. And the dying young mother desperately wants to believe what she’s saying, too.
But the truth is, Lizzie is dying a slow, awful, inexorable and unavoidable death. It’s a monstrous fate. Which partially explains, perhaps, why Conor has begun to be visited by a monster of another type. It’s a tree near his home that uproots itself regularly at 12:07 a.m. The tree’s deep, rumbly voice is as ominous as its fierce, fiery-faced visage.
Yet this monster comes not to ravage, but to offer comfort, counsel and stories—yes, stories—to help a terrified, disoriented boy face the monster of grief that threatens to consume his heart.
A Monster Calls is a fanciful, occasionally tense story of one boy’s agonizing trek through grief. The film never explicitly explains where the titular Monster comes from (though there are some hints for observant viewers). But it seems likely that the story’s fantastical conceit could best be understood as some sort of dreamlike, psychological projection from deep within Conor’s heart.
What this film does do—and poignantly so—is walk through much of the process of coming to grips with a loved one’s death. We watch Conor struggle with several stages of grief, including denial, anger and, ultimately, acceptance.
In its first appearance, the Monster tells Conor that he will come three times, telling three stories. Then, the Monster says, he will come a fourth time, with the expectation that Conor explain his own “nightmare” story. “That will be your truth,” the monster says.
The Monster then dutifully delivers those three fable-like tales (which are animated in the film). Each of these detailed narratives challenges Conor with surprise endings that deliver unexpected morals; and each relates to him in some way (though Conor can’t always see the connection at first). The Monster ultimately wants Conor to tell the truth about the meaning of a recurring nightmare he keeps having. It’s a truth that Conor has a hard time admitting.
[Spoiler Warning] The deep, dark truth of Conor’s struggle ultimately isn’t that he’s afraid that his mother is going to die. Rather, it’s in the fact that he knows that she is, that he’s weary of her struggle, and that he’s actually ready for her to die. In his nightmare, he holds on to his mother—who’s being sucked into a deep sinkhole—and can’t maintain his grip on her. “I can’t stand knowing that she’ll go,” he tells the Monster. “I let her fall. I let her die. … I deserve punishment. I deserve the worst.” Then he adds, “I started thinking I wanted it to be over. … I let her go. I could have held onto her longer.” It’s an aching, bittersweet plumbing of the depths of grief and guilt. The Monster helps the boy see that he has to relinquish his guilt over his mother’s death from cancer in order to grieve her death in a healthy way and move forward with his life.
Though the story deals primarily with Conor’s relationships with his mother and the Monster, several other characters bear mentioning as well. Conor’s grandmother (who moves in with him and his mom to take care of Lizzie full time) is a hard, discipline-oriented woman who eventually takes legal custody of the boy. Though they have a contentious relationship, she’s committed to the lad and is grieving deeply herself. Near the end of the film, they are both able to cry together about what’s happened.
Conor’s father, who divorced his mother many years before, is a mostly goodhearted chap who visits Conor and his mom shortly before her death. It’s clear that Conor’s dad really wasn’t up to the job of being a good husband and father the first time around, but he’s doing the best he can to try to encourage and help Conor during his brief stay.
Finally, Conor’s mom suffers nobly as she moves toward the end of her life. She tries to shield Conor from the worst of her disease—perhaps even begging the question of whether she’s tried too hard to do so. But she obviously adores her son (who takes care of many of her needs in a way that matures him beyond his years), and that the thought of leaving him is heartbreaking to her.
We see a church and a graveyard (that includes images of crosses) repeatedly consumed by a giant sinkhole—perhaps a subtle visual metaphor for the crisis of faith that death and loss can create. One of the Monster’s tales involves a parson who seems to be noble but turns out to be self-serving and ultimately lacks the faith he proclaims. Another tale involves a witch who seems evil but in fact hasn’t committed a heinous crime that she’s been accused of.
The Monster paradoxically affirms the role that belief plays in someone’s healing, yet cautions against placing too much weight on it. “Belief is half of all healing,” he says. “Belief is valuable. You must be careful where you put it.”
Someone earnestly exclaims, “Thank God.”
Another of the Monster’s stories revolves around a prince and a cleavage-baring farmer’s daughter, whom the prince runs off with and eventually marries. We see an animated version of the young woman lying down, apparently sans clothes, under a blanket.
Conor’s dad tells the boy that they got married in part because Lizzie got pregnant with him. His father says they were “too young,” and that ultimately love wasn’t “enough” to help them through their differences, which culminated in divorce.
As noted, Conor repeatedly has a horrific nightmare in which his mother is swallowed by a sinkhole after the boy fails to hold on to her. The event takes not only her, but the church and graveyard, too. Lizzie eventually succumbs to cancer in a hospital.
The Monster seems to wreak terrible property destruction when he comes to visit the boy. In the end, however, it’s clear that no such damage has taken place. That said, at times Conor does wreak real physical havoc himself in fits of angry destruction, including the complete trashing of one of his grandmother’s rooms (and its priceless heirlooms). Conor acts out his frustration in another scene by kicking and throwing things, as well as jumping angrily on the furniture.
Conor is also on the receiving end of fists and feet of bullies who slap and beat him. They step on his hand and even pull his tongue. In another fit of rage, Conor later turns the tables on one of his tormentors and pummels him repeatedly, injuring the boy badly enough to send him to the hospital (we hear).
We see footage of the original 1933 version of King Kong that shows the huge ape plunging from the Empire State Building after being wounded by strafing planes. One of the Monster’s stories involves a king who is poisoned and a bride who is murdered (which we see represented via animation).
God’s name is misused twice. We hear one use of “d–n.”
Conor’s father has a glass of wine at a restaurant. A bully says of absentminded Conor that he must be “drunk or something.” We see a collection of Lizzie’s myriad prescription medication bottles on her dresser, another visual hint that her battle has been long and hard.
Conor briefly glimpse his mum’s bare back as the dying woman’s mother and a nurse attend to her medical needs. She’s skin and bones, and we see her ribs protrude alarmingly. It’s a traumatizing moment for Conor, and a scene that’s obviously intended to help us understand that his mother is very near the end. In that sense, it’s a sadly poignant moment, but it’s also one that could be disturbing to young or sensitive viewers.
“Stories are wild creatures, Conor O’Malley. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they may wreak?”
So Conor’s Monster tells him before narrating one of his three tales. And it’s true: Some stories don’t go where you expect. That’s because sometimes the truth at the end is hard for us to admit, hard for us to embrace.
That’s certainly the case in A Monster Calls. This powerful parable of a boy’s journey through grief uncovers some surprising truths by the time the credits roll. It’s a movie that’s equal parts intense—the Monster is visually frightening enough that it could leave young viewers with bad dreams themselves—and emotionally insightful. As the story unfolds, the Monster in the middle grows less monstrous and more … wise.
There’s deep emotional resonance in the way Conor’s bark-clad guide helps the admit—then accept—some hard truths about what he is really feeling about his mother’s slow demise. In the end, the scary tree with the flaming red eyes isn’t nearly as foreboding as it seems.
Instead, the Monster helps Conor to face the monsters in his own heart … and to begin moving forward after his mother’s death. “It will be hard,” the Monster tells the boy in his last conversation with him. “It will be more than hard. But you will make it through, Conor O’Malley.”
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.