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Monster (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

MONSTER (2003)

Starring Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen, Annie Corley, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Marco St. John, Marc Macaulay, Scott Wilson, Rus Blackwell, Tim Ware, Robb Chamberlain, Stephan Jones, Brett Rice, Kaitlin Riley, Catherine Mangan, T. Robert Pigott and Chandra Leigh.

Screenplay by Patty Jenkins.

Directed by Patty Jenkins.

Distributed by Newmarket Films. 111 minutes. Rated R.

Charlize Theron is nearly unrecognizable playing Aileen Wuornos, the "first female serial killer" in the United States, a former hooker who shot six of her johns and one unlucky Good Samaritan. It’s not just the makeup, either, though that is fantastic. Nor is it just the fact that Theron gained 30 pounds, wore false teeth and a put her blonde hair into an unattractive mullet which makes her look spookily similar to the woman she is playing. Again, that is impressive, but lots of people can change their looks. What Theron does is much more impressive, and at the same time disquieting. She has become Aileen Wuornos. The looks, the mannerisms, the voice, the personality… Theron has submerged herself into this woman so completely that if you watched a scene from this movie back-to-back with some documentary footage of the late Wuornos (who was executed in 2002) you would be hard pressed to tell which was real and which was the actress.

We first see Wuornos finding shelter under a highway bypass. She is down to her last five dollars and ready to kill herself. She decides not to do it until she has spent the money, though, as she explains she probably gave some guy a blowjob for it and if she dies without using the five, it would be like giving it to him for free. Aileen tells God that if he has a plan for her, he better hurry up and give her a sign. She stops in a roadside bar to drink her last money. It turns out to be a gay bar. In it she meets Selby (Christina Ricci), an 18-year-old struggling with the idea of coming out of the closet to her family. They start to talk, and though Aileen rebuffs her at first, explaining she isn’t a lesbian, after they talk a while, she realizes that Selby is a fellow lost soul. Aileen decides that her purpose is to save the girl, maybe even share a house and have a “normal” family.

She needs money to take the girl away, though, so she decides to make money the only way that she can. When a john violently rapes her, she kills him in self-defense. After this, Aileen decides to go straight. She tries desperately to find work, but her lack of skills and experience and her criminal record makes her nearly unemployable. Finally, in desperation, Selby talks her into going back to her old trade. Aileen agrees, but the memory of the rape preys on her mind. She starts picking up johns, killing them and stealing their money and cars. As she does it more often, she loses her perspective on the act. It seems to her like she is living the dream; she buys herself and Selby a little house and they settle in. No one is looking into the murders, and she begins to believe she cannot be caught. Her downfall begins when she learns one of her victims was a cop. Then she and Selby have a slight crack-up while driving one of the stolen cars.

Theron captures all of the ups and downs of Wuornos life in surprisingly stark terms. She recognizes the deluded swagger of the woman and the debilitating self-doubt, her violent temper and her quiet self-loathing, her staggering need to have a normal life and the recklessness that makes it a pipe dream for her. Theron has been just fine in several movies over the years, but this role is a revelation. There was little real hint before in her career that she had such a finely nuanced portrait in her.

The character of Selby, played by Ricci, is much more ill-defined, perhaps because she is a fictional character based on a real one. Not that it is Ricci’s fault; she does very well with what she is given. However, we can never get a read on Selby, or why she is with Aileen. Selby seems alternately attracted and repulsed by her. Sometimes, she seems to want to share her life with Aileen, and sometimes she just looks like she’s looking for someone to take care of her. Sometimes you think the relationship is just a ”fuck you” to her bible-thumping daddy. Sometimes Selby seems like she couldn’t live without Aileen.

Other times, she seems to be tired of Aileen and hurtful towards her as if Aileen was an ex-lover who just won’t get the hint to go away. She is constantly nagging Aileen to go out and get money, yet she seems unwilling to work herself. Selby seems to get a dark thrill when she finds out Aileen is a hooker, pushing her to return to the streets after Aileen has decided to try to go straight with her life. Even when she finds out Aileen has committed murder; she seems strangely dispassionate about it. Now, I know nothing about the real-life character, maybe this is an accurate portrayal of who the woman that Selby is based upon really was. However, on a movie screen, she is pretty hard to get a handle on.

In the end, I think, the film sort of feels the same way about Aileen Wuornos as Selby does. The fact that the film is titled Monster gives you a pretty good read on the filmmakers’ feelings about Wuornos. As much as they might try on the surface to understand her motives and history, they are also sort of glory in her misdeeds and are even in a strange way profiting from her. I do believe that writer/director Patty Jenkins really, truly does want to find some redeeming qualities in Wuornos, but I think she is afraid to dig too deep in order to seem too compassionate to someone who almost completely lacked compassion for the men she killed.

Who knows, maybe Aileen doesn’t even deserve any better. She was most certainly a sociopath and did many things in her life that are completely unforgivable. There are many who would say, with complete justification, that anyone who takes a human life on purpose loses their humanity and is just a monster. Maybe in the end, little facts like who the woman was and what led her to the path she found are simply weak excuses for something that is indefensible. However, the triumph of Charlize Theron’s performance is that she seems to have found an understanding of the character and she lets you assess for yourself who Wuornos was and what drove her. She stares into the abyss unblinkingly and bares the good and the bad and the ugly and the hideous and even touches on Aileen’s misguided sense of chivalry. Because of Theron’s bravery, Monster is a pretty good movie that touches upon greatness -- at least in one performance. (1/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: January 10, 2004.


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