Starring: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen Script: Patty Jenkins Running Time: 1:51 Country: USA Year: 2003 Official Site: Monster
In Monster, the new feature film by director Patty Jenkins, Charlize Theron plays prostitute/serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was executed after twelve years on death row after being found guilty of killing several men.
Because Jenkins doesn't take the role as director to merely condemn her, those who support the death penalty may have more than one problem with Monster as it shows the world through the eyes of Wuornos. At the same time one need only look at the title to know that though her life is a challenging subject to tackle, she's hardly glorified but the Monster also has human moments. In a film like this there must be a respect shown to the families of the deceased. While Jenkins doesn't denigrate Wuornos's male victims, all but a few are shown as abusive misogynists.
The film focuses on the relationship between Theron and Christina Ricci's character and how a woman brutalized by men finds solace and hope in the arms of a young lesbian. Their romance blossoms at the local skating rink and is consummated in a cheap motel. As their courtship unfolds, the easy assumption is that Theron calls the shots and that Ricci is young, impressionable and overwhelmed by her personality. But as time goes on Ricci reveals herself as the master manipulator and Jenkins suggests that while the first murder may have been in self-defense, the others were done in part to placate her new girlfriend and a monumental lashing out. Ricci's character comes off as whiny and immature and she's visibly disappointed when Theron tries to leave prostitution behind and clean herself up. Theron is ultimately her cash cow and it's obvious that she prefers Theron risking her life in the streets rather than, say, getting a job herself. Manipulation in a relationship comes in many shades and what emerges is not so much a love story as it is the visceral codependency of a pimp and prostitute. Passion is lacking but there are moments of tenderness where Theron's acting is at its strongest, and watching her respond to Ricci's kindness is heartbreaking: her face shows that she hasn't experienced all that much.
Jenkins does an excellent job of showing exposing Wuornos's life little by little and how her path in life led her to a violent fork in the road between human and monstrous. While sympathizing for a serial killer is not at the top of anyone's list, to watch an abused and abusive woman explain that her life in the streets as a prostitute began at the age of thirteen does illicit compassion. Jenkins doesn't harp on the elements that make pro-death penalty/anti-rehabilitation people nuts. Instead she shows how as a prostitute Wuornos sees the ugly side of men. She asks the questions that people in the audience must be thinking. Why pick her up off the freeway and drive into the woods when they have a wife and children at home? What kind of police officer almost breaks a prostitute's jaw while forcing her into sexual acts? But then we see the other clients as well: the man who obviously can't get a woman on his own, or the one who's wife is wheelchair bound. And they come from all social classes and walks of life. The threat of violence is very real and obviously there must come a moment when everyone looks suspicious.
As for the acting, the comparisons to Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry are unavoidable. While Theron is very good, certain moments seem too over the top, too Oscar-momenty, especially with Christina Ricci sharing the screen, whose chameleon-like acting seems almost effortless. Theron is transformed into an aggressive, bulky woman with heavy doses of masculine energy and you really can't see the slinky, attractive actress who's mostly been relegated to girlfriend roles in any of the scenes. However, to suggest that weight gain, whether by wearing a fat suit (Julia Roberts in America's Sweethearts) or putting on 20-30 pounds (Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones Diary or Nicolas Cage in Adaptation) is somehow synonymous with acting is erroneous. The scene where she cleans herself up in the toilet seemingly only serves to show that the girl with the smoking body is faithful to her craft. But is it necessary other than to demonstrate that point?
Films about true crimes and the criminals who commit them will always hold the public captive and stories about female serial killers are basically an anomaly in the genre. And a prostitute/serial killer like Aileen Wuornos, who represents the second class status of a woman who lives as a prostitute as well as a vengeful, heartless killer is ultimately an embodiment of abuser and the abused, both victim and killer. The fim is shot in a grainy, gritty style that nowadays could almost be labeled as white trash docudrama style. It's filming pure underbelly, of life in the suburbs, in the streets, in dingy bars. There is no beauty.