Colossal hides a dark and unsettling movie inside the cragged green skin of a kaiju monster spectacular. Actually, a couple of dark, unsettling movies. The high-concept premise is a diversion: Hard-drinking New York blogger Gloria (Anne Hathaway), laid off and cast out by her boyfriend, returns to her depressed hometown, where she quickly returns to old habits at a bar owned by childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). After an all-night imbibing session, she wakes up late the next day to find that a gangly monster—the illegitimate runt of Godzilla’s litter—has destroyed large sections of Seoul. There’s something familiar about this monster’s nervous tics, not to mention its favored hour of mayhem, right around the time Gloria is at her most sloshed and destructive. She begins to realize she is the monster—a revelation both comedic and disturbing, given how many people she killed last night.
That’s plenty for a movie by itself, a demented metaphor for how an alcoholic’s bedlam reaches far beyond herself. But that’s only the first half-hour of Colossal. The movie has more sinister plans for us, and writer-director Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) uses wild tonal shifts to distract us before he goes in for the kill. Though the film never quite abandons its absurdist comedy and its boyish glee for romping monsters, Colossal also becomes a brutal psychological horror movie, more unforgiving and savage by the minute. It will take viewers by surprise, and they might not like what they see.
The creature mayhem is the first sign of the movie’s skill at landing a sneaky gut punch. Vigalondo’s charmingly awkward beast makes a fine nod to the tripped-out monsters in Japanese genre movies, which he clearly holds dear. (One of the movie’s best twists, involving a second unexpected visitor, is straight out of the kaiju playbook.) As Gloria embraces her inner lizard, her bumbling attempts to control its movements present a welcome outlet for Hathaway’s gift for physical comedy—until the death toll flashes across the bottom of the TV the next day, leaving Gloria (and the viewer) with a world-historical hangover. Gloria soon develops an existential fear of turning on the news and being confronted by her complicity in whatever fresh hell her stumble-prone proxy has unleashed around the world—one emotion to which we can all relate.
And so it goes, as the film’s initial levity curdles into something more potent. At first, the movie treats Gloria’s alcoholism as flighty and unserious, a bad habit that a trip home can erase. Then we see the genuine dread in her eyes when she stares down a bottle of beer, a moment pointed enough to recall Hathaway’s unsparing turn as an addict in Rachel Getting Married.
Likewise, as Gloria settles in with Oscar’s drinking buddies (including the great Tim Blake Nelson), the crew’s nights together become disquieting as their own addictions come into focus. This is where Colossal takes its most audacious left turn, as Gloria’s childhood small town shows cracks of resentment that will erupt in bursts of misogyny and twisted violence. This final reveal is Vigalondo’s coup de grâce, as supporting players we thought we had pegged begin to play against type with unnerving deftness. It turns out that the monster Vigalondo really wanted to drag into the spotlight was lurking in our hometown backyards all along.
The 39-year-old Spanish director has made a bait-and-switch movie that won’t stop switching, a high-wire act he pulls off through sheer creative onslaught. He brings undeniable force and finesse to his parallel worlds of monster mash and domestic thriller, and even B-movie enthusiasts primed for the Anne Hathaway Godzilla movie are likely to be surprised by just how far he stretches his premise—right down to a final cut-to-black gag that gets a big laugh out of one last twist of the knife.
And for Vigalondo’s final trick, come to see Hathaway play a literal monster, a satisfying feature-length troll of her notoriously legion detractors. She embraces the meta sheen with a self-parodying, unglamorous wit that I suspect even her most professional haters would appreciate. And if not, well, Colossal is likely to leave them too emotionally exhausted to care anymore—its gargantuan weirdness could make anyone throw in the towel.