This is a difficult movie to like, a difficult one to watch, and a difficult one to write about. It’s also an impossible movie to dismiss or ignore.
Everything you’ve heard about the normally alluring Charlize Theron’s transformation into prostitute-turned-serial-killer Aileen Wuornos is true. There is not one glimmer of glamour attached to Theron’s being in this film — neither physically, nor emotionally. Whether the results are a true picture of Wuornos, I don’t know. I do know that this remarkable makeover results in a vivid characterization so far removed from Theron’s screen persona that it’s very nearly distracting; it’s nigh on to impossible not to keep looking for some trace of Theron’s natural beauty up there on the screen. (At the same time, the film’s “guest-star” parade of character actors like Bruce Dern, Scott Wilson and Pruitt Taylor Vince is actually more distracting.)
Sure, Theron’s alteration is a kind of a stunt: Strip a star of her normal good-looks, let her pack on 30 pounds (I’m willing to bet they didn’t pay Theron a Renee Zellweger-Bridget Jones bonus for this), and so on, and you arouse both media attention and audience curiosity. Which raises the question: Is this really a movie about Wuornos, or one about transforming Theron into the character on the screen? That said, such stunts can have a real storytelling purpose — and that’s the case here.
Casting a known actress of more-than-usual beauty in the role of Wuornos affords the screen character an extra dimension, imbuing her with the creepy sense of familiarity gone wrong, since it’s hard not to realize that a few pounds, proper skin and dental care, deportment and makeup sense are all that physically separate the actress and the character. From there, it’s no great leap to considering how great the difference is between anyone and an Aileen Wuornos. Regardless of how valid you find this line of reasoning, it’s clearly the one taken by writer/director Patty Jenkins.
It’s simplistic to state that Jenkins views her “monster” as a victim of circumstances — but it’s not entirely wrong either. Everything about Wuornos as she appears in the film is grounded in her circumstances — not just the murders she committed, but also her lesbian relationship with Selby Wall (Christina Ricci) and, indeed, Wuornos’ whole life.
Since much of the film is apparently drawn from Wuornos’ letters, it’s fair to ask if Jenkins isn’t buying a load of self-justifying clams. And maybe she is. Because in some ways, Monster seems to be making excuses for Wuornos’ behavior — occasionally with a kind of TV-movie earnestness. Presenting her first murder as something akin to self-defense when she plugs a brutally abusive john (Lee Tergeson, TV’s Oz) is certainly dealing from a stacked deck. And it becomes a very oddly stacked deck indeed when, only a few scenes later, Wuornos explains to Wall that she killed the guy because she couldn’t stand the idea that she might die and Wall would think she’d stood her up. True or not, this justification undeniably attests to the workings of a mind that’s more than a little askew.
In any case, Jenkins presents Wuornos as a pathetic and sympathetic character longing for redemption — her relationship with Wall prompts her to want a better life — that is denied her. The central irony is that it’s not until Wuornos wants redemption that she starts on her downhill slide into murder. And the film presents her decline as wholly understandable.
Wuornos has no earthly idea how to go about obtaining a better life; she operates entirely on childish emotions. Seeing people around her living in appealing circumstances, Wuornos naively believes she can join them and just walk into a decent job — without qualifications, credentials or even a work history. In a way, this is the film’s greatest strength.
On the surface, Wall — the 18-year-old just-out-of-the-closet girl who has been packed off to relatives by her religious father to “cure” her lesbianism — is the naive one. Yet any but the most cursory examinations of this film reveal Wall as far more manipulative and savvy than the defeated Wuornos, who never really gets past her adolescent efforts at acceptance by raising her skirt. In fact, Wuornos’ every attempt at holding onto this “last chance” with Wall can be viewed as increasingly desperate variants on this same approach.
All this is inherent in Theron’s performance; her every move, her body language, her constantly alert, searching eyes attest to a kind of panicked adolescent terror that her character has never outgrown. This concept — and Theron’s depiction of it — is brilliant, and brilliantly achieved.
Unfortunately, there is another side to the film that does it no favors. Jenkins carries a lot of Independent Film 101 baggage with her. And as with so much of the indie-film scene on display these days, Monster has a kind of cookie-cutter look, feel and sound to it. What started as a movement away from the interchangeability of mainstream-Hollywood product has succumbed to its own kind of sameness — the spare sets, the economical non-orchestral musical score, etc. This trend threatens to turn the indie-film scene into something as predictable as the glossiest mainstream offering.
Jenkins makes good use of the movie’s ’80s-pop soundtrack, but the minute trance-music guru BT’s track kicks in, Monster sounds like a dozen other indie films you’ll find flooding the Independent Film and Sundance channels at 3 a.m. The director’s realistic and unglamorized look at the less-delightful side of Florida serves the film nicely, but when she insists on sticking in a wholly arbitrary time-lapse shot of cars with streaking lights whizzing by on I-95, her approach becomes a bad indie cliche. Similarly, there’s a simple-minded obviousness to such symbolism as having Wuornos’ favorite hangout bear the name “The Last Resort.”
Small quarrels? Yes, but they’re symptomatic of larger problems. They’re also what keeps the film itself from being on a par with its basic concept — and with Theron’s towering performance.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke