Part II: Why I Think A Monster Calls is a Work of Art
(Note: These images are all taken from various trailers and promotional videos for the movie, and in my opinion, do not contain any spoilers. For my review, please see Part I: A Short Review)
A Monster Calls may be a movie about a boy dealing with loss, but it is such a beautiful, beautiful film. J.A. Bayona is probably my favourite director at the moment. From The Orphanage to The Impossible to A Monster Calls… his work seem to be getting better and better. Visually, this movie just looks amazing. It’s like a piece of art, which in fact it is. After all, a movie is a collaborative artwork, and this one just looks stunning. Bayona’s work on this film reminds me of some of Steven Spielberg’s early films that I have seen. There are shots in Steven Spielberg’s early movies that you just know belong to him. I’ve included two examples below. You can literally frame these images and put them on your wall as art.
Bayona’s work in A Monster Calls evokes the same feelings. Right from the opening title sequence, the watercolour-effect spreading across artwork just looks stunning. From there, the amazing visuals seem to continue frame after frame for the rest of the film. Bayona played a lot with the lighting, with composition, and with close-ups. Composition of his shots follow all the rules from the Rule of Thirds to Symmetry (and in some instances, just breaks them), and are just a feast to look at.
His camera work is creative, and I am just in awe of his work. There is an early shot in the film with the monster walking towards Conor’s house and Bayona starts the shot with the camera upside-down, looking in a puddle of water so that the reflection of the monster is the right side up. As the monster continues walking, Bayona flips the camera the right way up (so the reflection is now upside-down) but he pans up from the reflection, so the camera is now looking at the actual monster and no longer the reflection, and everything is the correct side up once again! I saw this in the cinema and my brain just went “Whoa”. This man belongs behind a camera lens. The visuals he comes up with are just crazy good. It may seem weird but I sometimes feel sad when such creative output is overlooked. So many people work on a single movie, thousands of artistic talents working long hours with average salaries (not everyone gets $200 million like Robert Downey Jr.) and it can take months and years of work to get the final result on screen. To have some critics then overlook all that work and spend just minutes writing insults about it can be very discouraging. Thankfully, the work done on A Monster Calls is getting a great response!
Bayona also has the ability to use really creative camera angles to add visual interest into an otherwise mundane scene. The first overhead shot of Conor in the image below is an example. Conor stands still while the other students walk around him, like water flowing past a rock in the middle of a stream. This shot only lasted a couple of seconds or so, and then it cuts to an ordinary view of Conor from the front, but having those few seconds of the overhead shot just elevated the scene visually. It made a difference. The second image below is another overhead shot which has a matching square/rectangular theme, from the sofa to the design of the rug, and even the placement of Conor’s art book. It’s these little details that make the film so visually beautiful. In art, details matter.
The next two images show Conor sitting at his desks, in school and at home. A slight tilt of the camera and a boring scene in a classroom becomes a work of art, with dynamic lines leading to a vanishing point. In the second image, a single light source on his drawing table at night turns the darkness surrounding him into a vignette that frames his small body. If only every movie I watch is this beautiful to look at.
Bayona also played with close-ups, as I mentioned earlier. How do you turn the sharpening of a pencil into a work of art? See close-up below. Think about it for a second. If I ask you to film someone sharpening a pencil, there are many ways you can do it but chances are, you and I probably won’t come up with a shot as artistic as this close-up. This image of an instrument used for art, is in itself a piece of art.
Other close-up shots are included below, all beautifully framed. I don’t remember the close-up image of the shoes being in the movie so it may not have been in the final film, but I’m including it here anyway, because it just looks good (trailers are released way before the final film is out and are sometimes different from the final cut).
Bayona also used a lot of profile shots that are composed and lighted beautifully. Like the image of young Christian Bale in Spielberg’s movie above, the backlit profile of Lewis MacDougall in the image below is good enough to be framed and put up on the wall. There are so many beautiful images in this film.
There is a line in the movie that says “Life is always in the eyes”, a line that Bayona’s own father used to say to him when teaching him how to draw. In the context of the film, this refers mainly to the monster’s eyes.
However, to me, the life of this movie is in Conor’s eyes. This brings me to my earlier comment regarding Lewis MacDougall (see my previous blog post). Someone needs to give this kid an Academy Award, or some other form of recognition. He totally deserves it… really, I’m not just saying that. There are very few actors (child or adult) who can convey so much without saying a word. Time and time again, throughout this movie, Lewis MacDougall showed happiness, sadness, hope, desperation, anger and everything in between (sometimes a mixture all at once), just through his eyes. This movie belongs to him. Felicity Jones was great, so was Sigourney Weaver; and Liam Neeson always sounds cool… but Lewis MacDougall just blew everyone out of the water. In the end, this movie lives because of him. Bayona used a lot of close-ups of Lewis’s face and eyes, both in the images below and in other scenes… especially in the final scene of the movie (no spoilers, don’t worry) where the camera lingers quite a while on Conor’s face and you see so many emotions going through him, just by looking in his eyes. I don’t even remember what was in the background of that shot, all I remember was his eyes and the emotions flickering through them.
In addition to that, Lewis MacDougall feels real. I read somewhere that he celebrated his first acting role by going out to eat chips with his dad. Not going out and buying the latest Playstation, or throwing a huge party… but having some chips with his dad. I think that’s just awesome. Perhaps it’s this real-life humble and simple nature that comes through in his performance, but whatever the reason, you feel like you’re watching someone real who lives down the road, and not someone who is giving a “performance” on screen. Bayona seems to be able to bring out the best in child actors; Tom Holland who was amazing in The Impossible has now moved on to much bigger roles (but was also a stand-in for the monster in this film).
Finally, before I finish, I would like to mention the animated sequences in this film. A Monster Calls has a few animated sequences that are beautifully done. They are made by a Barcelona company called Glassworks, and look like watercolour paintings but were actually 3D models, rigged and animated to look like hand-painted art. Beginning with a more cartoony style, these animated sequences gradually become more realistic as the movie progresses, as Conor’s real world starts to blend with his imaginary one. A video showing some of the work done by Glassworks is here:
Those are a few examples why I think A Monster Calls is a work of art. The visuals are just amazing. You may agree with me, or you may not… either way is fine, but if you have read up to here, I would like to say thank you for reading this really long post! There are many movies that I watch and then forget about, but then there are some that I watch, and then have to talk or write about. This is one of the latter. And now, I shall go and read about the making of the movie in the book A Monster Calls: the Art and Vision Behind the Film which has been sitting on my shelf for a while. I didn’t want to read it before watching the movie, but now that I have seen the movie, I’m no longer afraid of accidentally reading a spoiler. Hope you enjoyed reading this post and looking at the beautiful images. Happy viewing, and enjoy A Monster Calls!