September 27, 2002
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, Stephan Jones, Brett Rice, Kaitlin Riley, Cree Ivey, ,
A topic like the sordid life of America’s most notorious (and only) female serial killer who was also a highway prostitute with a lesbian lover is not the cheeriest, or some might suggest wisest, choice for your directorial debut. Writed/director Patty Jenkins has, however, taken up the challenge of dramatising the life and crimes of Aileen Wuornos and the result is Monster.
Made on a budget of $5 million dollars Monster has a lot in common with Kimberely Pierce’s 1999 masterpiece Boys Don’t Cry. Both are vivid portrayals of the American dream gone sour. Both feature shockingly violent crimes and brutality against women. Both feature lesbian love stories at their heart and both have career redefining performances from their leading ladies.
Monster is not quite as accomplished as Boys Don’t Cry for two reasons. One is the script – sometimes clunky and repetitive – and the direction occasionally lacks imagination. The 2nd reason is that the story and characters are unrelentingly grim. Aileen (or Lee as she was known) was a victim of circumstance and a horribly abusive childhood yet is still the type of person you would cross the street to avoid. What Charlize Theron achieves with her portrayal of this woman is nothing short of remarkable. At turns utterly reprehensible, mean, funny, tragic, evil and sympathetic she simply blazes across the screen in a performance that will be remembered as one of the greats. Theron gets under the skin of this woman and envelopes herself inside.
Monster opens with Wuronos (Theron) sitting under a bridge, in the rain, ready to shoot herself. Her voiceover explains that she’s come to the end of the road with a life blighted by a lack of love. She decides to spend her last five dollars in a bar, which turns out to be a gay bar, where she attracts the attention of 18 year old Selby Wall (Ricci). Selby has been sent to Florida by her parents to stay with her religious Aunt as a way to ‘cure’ her homosexuality. She lavishes attention on Wournos (who adamantly claims she is not a ‘dyke’) and through displays of affection and admiration soon seduces her. In one of the films most touching and well played scenes Theron and Ricci utterly convince you that these two desperate souls could fall into a relationship – for Selby its the excitement and thrill of breaking convention for Lee its the prospect of having a normal existence with someone who genuinely loves her.
With this thought etched in her mind Aileen attempts to get a normal 9 to 5 job so she can provide for her ‘girl’. Unfortunately with no qualifications, resume, skills or experience she finds the reality of the situation somewhat different to how she imagined. Decent society has no intention of letting someone like Aileen Wuornos have an easy ride and promptly throws her back in the gutter. Jenkin and Theron make you beg the question of how different things might have been for this woman had society, the government, a recruitment agent, a policeman, a social worker, someone had offered her that olive branch.
We discover that Aileen was abused from the age of 8 and her child molesting father committed suicide when she was a teenager. Her mother left her and her brother in the care of their alcoholic grandparents. When she fell pregnant at 13 they promptly threw her out on the street and she was forced to become a highway prostitute to survive. According to statistics Florida highway prostitues are raped, on average, around 12 times a year. Aileen always claimed that the killings were in self defense. It is hard to believe that all of the men she murdered abused her but evidence does suggest that the first man she shot and killed did rape and torture her. This is depicted in the film in a seriously harrowing sequence. The police who eventually caught Wournos sold their rights to the story before she even went to trial. It was also revealed that her first victim had a long history of sexual abuse and rape against women which was kept from her defense team.
There is no question, in my mind anyway, that Wournos killed innocent men. The film shows her committing these murders for the money and in cold blood. Aileen, in her usual delusional manner, convinces herself that she can keep getting away with this and that all the men paying for her service don’t deserve remorse or compassion so who really cares
Sympathy is not demanded for this woman more that the killings could have been fuelled by years of the worst kind of brutal abuse imaginable. Could it have been that the abuse she suffered at the hands of various men in her life conditioned her outlook? The crimes she committed were horrific and one must never lose sight of that or lose sight of the suffering and grief of her victim’s families. Monster challenges you to ask why she did it though? It does not allow you to take the easy option and condemn her crimes as merely bloodlust acted out by a psychopath. In Jenkin’s script and Theron’s fearless interpretation of her you are challenged to address and think about how an horrendous childhood can lead to an adult life fraught with complication and misery.
Theron’s work in Monster has been compared to De Niro in Raging Bull. The much talked about physical transformation is extraordinary but equally impressive is the characterization. She doesn’t play a part she becomes this woman. She swaggers like a truck driver and her mannerisms convey the emotional turmoil of a confused, tragic, deluded, sometimes evil soul quite brilliantly. It has been said it’s one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema. That statement, for once, is not far off the mark. Ricci has an extremely difficult part – in Jenkins script it’s hard to appreciate where Selby is coming from and in the hands of a less talented actress she would have become tiresome and wholly unsympathetic very quickly. Thankfully Ricci knows how to pull out the stops to avoid this happening.
This is powerful, conflicting stuff that it definitely worth seeing for Theron alone.