Story: Saori Mugino (Sakura Ando) is a single mother and always has a guilty conscience because she thinks she doesn't take care of her son Minato (Soya Kurokawa) as well as she should. Something is wrong with him at the moment too. He behaves strangely and asks unusual questions. When he comes home with injuries and jumps out of a moving car, Saori suspects that something happened at school. She investigates and finds out that Minato's teacher Hori (Eita Nagayama) is bullying the boy and has even physically attacked him. Confronted with this, the teacher and the principal apologize to Saori, but the mother doesn't get the impression that the whole thing is taken seriously or that anything will get better in the future. The mother is frustrated and desperate. Hori can't help it anymore and tells her that Minato is not the victim, but the perpetrator. He actually bullies his classmate Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), who seems to be a bit different and is therefore also looked down at by the rest of his classmates. Saori can't believe that her son could really harm anyone else, and Hori finally wants to know why he was accused of abusing the student. It turns out that the situation is a lot more complicated than mother and teacher would have suspected...
Review: After "Monster" received the award for best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, I tried to avoid finding out too much about the plot. As a result, the movie felt like a mystery thriller to me for quite some time, a thriller whose atmosphere is not only gloomy, but even quite creepy at times, even though the movie is actually a drama. At least at first, because after a while, Minato's behavior becomes more understandable. However, that can't really be said about all the characters. Because even though the script may show a clear direction and the phrase "Who is the monster?", which Minato and Yori sing, is quite thought-provoking, the behavior of some characters remains inexplicable even in retrospect. At the beginning, the strange behavior of the characters leads to a lot of questions that extremely increase the movie's suspense. But after you finally got some answers to the big questions, you still don't have an explanation for some of the more strange scenes - especially those in the first half of the movie -, which makes you feel a little cheated.
First, we are presented with the events from the mother's point of view. She is worried about her child, who seems to be bullied and even comes home with injuries. When she finds out from her son that his teacher Hori is hitting him, she confronts the principal and the accused teacher more than once. The principal's behavior might somehow be excused by her having lost her grandson, but only to a certain extent. When the mother finally wants more than just empty excuses, the teachers and the principal go radio silent and just keep apologizing without even giving the impression of really listening. During that, Hori acts erratic and seems more like a small child who is forced to apologize, but is actually already thinking about playing with his toys again. Since the second part of the story is shown from Hori's perspective and we also see a few overlapping moments, you might think that there are good reasons for this, but instead, the two drawn pictures of him don't line up.
Sakura Ando ("Bad Lands"), who plays the mother, is able to add some complexity to her role, as she has self-doubts about whether she is looking after her son enough and desperately tries to keep her little family together, even though Minato is clearly struggling. However, she completely fades into the background as the story goes into the second third and Minato's teacher comes to the fore. Just like the script, Eita Nagayama ("Hara-Kiri - Death of a Samurai") doesn't quite seem to know in which direction his character should go. At the end of the day, we can't really warm up to him because he doesn't do enough to get rid of the antipathy we developed for him before. Things are similar with the principal, whose behavior often doesn't seem very natural, even though we do find out a little more about her. Minato, on the other hand, is supposed to remain mysterious until we finally get the answers we hoped for in the last third.
Towards the end, "Monster" clearly goes into the direction of a drama, and the often somewhat restrictive, creepy atmosphere is then brightened up by a streak of light here and there. The ending - with the final scene leaving some room for interpretation - is satisfying and not only gives the story some tragedy, but also leaves the viewer with a warm and fuzzy feeling. The fact that the movie manages to captivate us at all times is not only due to the structure of the screenplay, which always leaves us with countless questions and therefore fuels the suspense, but above all else thanks to the dense atmosphere that director Hirokazu Koreeda creates on the screen (who was behind the camera most recently for the Korean "Broker"). As mentioned before, he manages to create confining scenes that make us believe that Minato is indeed a monster, even though we already know from the beginning that the truth has to be more complicated than that, but he also makes the slightly warmer scenes work. "Monster" is definitely one of those movies that could have turned out quite boring in the hands of a more inexperienced director.
The unusual atmosphere is emphasized by an unobtrusive but ever-present soundtrack by the well-known composer and pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto, who sadly passed away recently and delivered his last work here. The movie's mood moves between dream and nightmare while we are constantly trying to find out who is bullying or abusing who. The answer turns out to be more different than you'd think, but it is absolutely satisfying, which makes "Monster" definitely a worthwhile drama which also manages to make you think. However, the big weakness remains that the characters don't always behave in a comprehensible way. And the movie doesn't delve into the (supporting) characters enough to give us the impression of authentic behavior either. Sometimes this shortcoming is just too major to ignore. But if you let yourself be carried away by the undeniably gripping atmosphere, you will get an innovative and worthwhile drama with "Monster".