Depending on what stage of life you find yourself, some stories will resonate with you more than most to the point of intentionally or unconsciously looking past any objective criticism you may bring to formulating a rational opinion, though there are always noticeable gradations in quality. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t yet again mention the loss of my father in another review, but it begs bringing up just once more for context’s sake.
Hardly three months had gone by after my dad’s passing once J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls beautifully visualized the helplessness, frustration and grief I had felt accepting his ultimate demise. On the other hand, The Glass Castle’s poorly handled adaptation of Jeannette Wells’s memoir of the same name, coming out a little over half a year later and from which I could sense some scant similarities between my and her experiences growing up with an alcoholic father, sent me into quivering rage that made me wish I could abandon critical reason altogether and simply excoriate the film and its creators for their cold-hearted, cynical and transparent emotional manipulation. Where exactly Anders Walter’s I Kill Giants fits into this spectrum I’m still figuring out, though it’s certainly somewhere in between.
In terms of story, Walter’s adaptation of Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura’s graphic novel – Kelly additionally wrote the screenplay for this film – and A Monster Calls are virtual twins, as both feature adolescent protagonists falling into a fantastical world of magical realism as an escape from the reality of their powerlessness toward death, as death patiently awaits their respective terminally-ill parents. Qualitatively, at the moment, it falls closer to a film like this year’s The Ritual in that it is a competently handled genre flick firmly executing a familiar story, though adding nothing new to the inevitable formula it will repeat. You may not await each anticipated beat with baited breath, but there’s still enough pull from additional factors to warrant successful, if somewhat diminished effect.
That structure, wherein the protagonist denies attempts by loved ones to reengage with a reality that frightens them only to slowly realize through their fantasy world that their reality is unavoidable and nothing to be frightened of, goes through some slow patches here in between the infrequent set piece and next tidbit of information unwrapping the encompassing world in which the plot resides. Its stifled pacing may be partially down to an admirable reliance upon mood more so than spectacle, though much of this seems to do with giant killer Barbara Thorsen’s (Madison Wolfe) character and particular development toward learning the values and hindrances of losing oneself in imagination.
Throughout the first act, we are given little to no evidence that Barbara’s belief in giants is metaphorical of the darkness she’d rather not admit, supplanting a necessary reckoning with hard emotions like A Monster Calls’s Connor O’Malley had, though even before the narrative makes that turn, she’s a tough character to pin partially by design, but also perhaps unintentionally. Naturally, she’s a guarded preteen whose walls around her become clearer once her yet-unknown psychological struggle is put more into focus, though even after the film’s big revelation is hinted at, we aren’t afforded more information that’ll provide a sense of rounding her out. Because of this perceived lack, her ultimate coming of age moment seems as though it takes longer than necessary to arrive and creates the illusion of repeated tonal and developmental beats throughout prior scenes.
Wolfe’s performance of her, however, feels more honorably patient regarding how and when Barbara finally comes to terms with her mother’s impending death without conflating impenetrability and personality, much less sacrificing the subtler nuances that make her Barbara compelling. Where there’s strength, there’s certainly vulnerability and though the character itself doesn’t extend far past this basic dichotomy, she quite skillfully, even movingly in select scenes, grants this familiar sort of character depth a sheen of tangibility. She, as well as the rest of the film’s predominantly female cast, represents a powerful figure for female viewers who’ll either look up to her or otherwise might see a piece of themselves in her, though it’s difficult to imagine some male audiences wouldn’t connect with her, as well.
Fortunately, proceedings speed up toward and through the final act once the narrative has reached emotionally satisfying payoffs for its themes and characters, though they were expected all along and took an unintentionally deliberate path to get there. Barbara rises victorious against the ‘Titan,’ though it reveals it was there for her rather than her mother, calmly instilling in her the wisdom that everything that lives must die, and to reject this truth is to reject life. Taking this message to heart, she reunites with her dying mother in a scene that’s not only affecting as it is because of Wolfe’s performance and Walter’s intimate, non-invasive direction, but also because of the subtle truth that we all either have been or will be in Barbara’s shoes.
It’s an inevitability like this and its implementation in the narrative where A Monster Calls went so heartbreakingly right, and The Glass Castle went so gloriously wrong. What I Kill Giants gets right is more than enough to keep it from cascading down toward the latter half of the hierarchy. Put simply, to reject the discrepancies that separates the two from the one – and many others – is to do a disservice to those who could gain something meaningful. I couldn’t walk out on I Kill Giants if I wanted to, but I can’t reject something that recognizes the differences.