Monolith (2016)

The Monolith is, at least according to the slick corporate advertisement with which Ivan Silvestrini’s eponymous film begins, “quite simply the safest car ever built and the safest place for you and your family.” This state-of the-art, jet-black SUV comes with ‘adamantine nanotech body armour’ and a high-tech onboard interactive ‘drive companion’ bearing the ominous name ‘Lilith‘. Unstoppable on the outside, and with a comfortably insulated interior (expressly compared to a womb in one sequence), it is one tough mother – making it the perfect rival and foil to the film’s heroine Sandra (Katrina Bowden).

“I fucked up again,” declares Sandra to her toddler son David (played by Nixon and Crew Hodges). “Mummy has a gift for fucking up.” The line comes about halfway through Monolith, when Sandra’s sense of inadequacy has reached a dramatic crisis point – but really these words might have been stated long before Sandra found herself in the Californian desert, in the middle of nowhere, accidentally locked out of her car (in its ultra-secure ‘Vault Mode’) and phoneless with David still strapped into his baby seat on the other side of the bullet-proof window. Right from the outset, Sandra has been a bundle of foibles and anxieties – a young stay-at-home mother still not quite over the singing career that she gave up to have David, endlessly worried that her record-producing husband Carl will leave her for a younger starlet (as he did to his last wife when he first met Sandra), and, tellingly, uneasy that David calls her ‘Sandy’, but never ‘Mummy’. Sandra herself feels like a failed mother – and her life-or-death trial in the desert, where she must overcome her shortcomings and call upon every last resource (and her vehicle’s more over-the-top protective features), merely amplifies, in extremis, the inner conflicts and tensions which have kept Sandra from driving forward in the first place. In delivering her son through this second, difficult birth, Sandra is on the right, if rough, track to take full possession of her own motherhood.

For the most part a two-hander, even a one-hander once David is no longer awake, the narrative here may be monolithic, but it is kept interesting by a variety of textures. There are not just the beautiful, eerily surreal desertscapes in which Sandra becomes so isolated and agonised, but also their transformation under Sandra’s hallucinations and dreams, induced by weed or exhaustion. If this arid, hostile space takes on mythic proportions, then the original trip to grandma’s house, the bear costume that David constantly wears, and the menacing presence of a big, bad wolf, all hint at an additional fairytale frame. And if the eventual, altogether desperate solution that Sandra finds for her predicament seems a little cartoonish, that is because we have already, in an earlier scene, glimpsed Wile E. Coyote on a service station’s television doing something just like it.

All these intertexts add layers to an otherwise simple high concept, while there is enough subtext beneath the bonnet to keep the mechanics of the plot running. It turns out this is not Christine or KnightRider. Lilith cannot even get Sandra’s name right let alone find ‘her’ own way out of a simple problem, and ‘she’ is no real substitute for Sandra (although the status of Lilith in Jewish folklore as Adam’s first, rejected wife – and as a demon – makes her a fitting symbolic opponent to the protagonist). Rather, Monolith is, from start to finish, a nightmarish road trip through maternal angst, with the titular car proving merely the vehicle for a more psychological journey.

© Anton Bitel