(director/writer: Patty Jenkins; cinematographer: Steven Bernstein; editors: Jane Kurson/Arthur Coburn; music: BT; cast: Charlize Theron (Aileen Wuornos), Christina Ricci (Selby Wall), Bruce Dern (Thomas), Scott Wilson (Horton), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Gene), Lee Tergesen (Vincent Corey), Annie Corley (Donna Tentler); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Charlize Theron/Mark Damon/Clark Peterson/Donald Kushner/Brad Wyman; Newmarket Films; 2003)
“Charlize is overwhelming, completely dominating the screen.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Director/writer Patty Jenkins makes her directorial debut in Monster. It is based on the true story of south Florida serial-killer hooker Aileen Wuornos, who was 12 years on Death Row before executed in October of 2002. She was convicted of killing seven men on the highway during the 1980s. The disturbing story itself was unimaginatively told, but as a character story it scores in droves. Beautiful South African model-turned-actress Charlize Theron makes herself ugly and gets fully into the head of the disturbed Aileen Wuornos, getting her low-rent white-trash attitude and flashes of anger and incoherent raves against men and society down pat. Theron is physically transformed. Her pretty face is made splotchy, her eyes heavy, her body is made masculine-like and she struts in a menacingly lumbering manner from packing many extra pounds, and there’s a dental prosthesis showing some mean looking buck teeth (she’s put together by makeup maven Toni G.). Charlize is overwhelming, completely dominating the screen. Christina Ricci as Wuornos’s out of the closet shallow and timid teen lover, Selby Wall, is almost as good at drawing beads on her sheltered selfish character, but her more sedate performance is overshadowed by Charlize’s electrifying one.
There are two overly sympathetic documentaries from Nick Broomfield that chronicle the serial killer’s life: “Aileen Wuornos — The Selling of A Serial Killer” and “Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer,” that could be viewed as companion pieces to this fictionalized version–sort of before and after versions of her life.
Since there’s no doubt about Aileen’s guilt, the film instead tries to delve into questions about her troubled life, her mental state, and her motives. It does a good job of exploring all those factors in a way that is not exploitative, but that doesn’t mean she had much to say about what snapped inside her and made her become a monster after running away from her Michigan home to the Sunshine State. Aside from the sterling performances by the buddy women, who have a lesbian relationship and go on-the-road in search for some happiness, the film remains dull and pointless.
Monster opens as the prostitute Aileen comes out of the rain to drink a beer in a gay/dyke bar and meets the much younger sadsack loner Selby (not the real name of her lover). They bond after a halting start and Aileen, though straight, beds down in ‘I wannabe an active lesbian already’ Selby’s room where she’s living in a suburban Daytona house with her aunt (her religious Ohio parents sent her there because they couldn’t deal with her lesbian urges). The film’s grim mood is never eased from the opening monologue, as Aileen explains her woeful childhood. Aileen recalls she was sexually abused by her grandfather at 8 and later raped by her brother, and when she told her parents it was she who was punished. A few years later her father committed suicide. When she became a prostitute at 13, it resulted in her being booted out from her family home because she disgraced them. The film ends at her trial where she’s betrayed by her lover testifying against her, as she’s sentenced to die in the electric chair. Nothing went right for Aileen from the beginning, as she filled her head with tawdry fantasies of stardom and true love and lost track of reality. Bent on suicide after getting $5 for giving a blowjob to a passing motorist on the highway, she pins all her hopes on having a loving relationship with the immature and dependent Selby.
The main feature of the film is about the lesbian relationship and what it meant to Aileen, who never loved or cared about anyone but herself before she met Selby. Jenkins befriended the real Wuornos while she was on death row and had access to the letters Wuornos wrote in the last decade of her life. With that being said, it’s not an easy movie to watch and never gets past how twisted Wuornos’s psyche was (from the first killing in self-defense of a john who beat her and then to murdering in cold-blood other johns and even someone who only wanted to help her, as the killings are seen as a means of getting back at all men). She lived out a hopeless existence in the waste-land environment she frequented of cheap bars, and because she was so twisted from childhood it’s not possible to know if what she says is true or not about the murders (she changed her stories a number of times). If you can be satisfied with a film that shuns a payoff or a ready made psychological explanation for her troubles and just tries to paint a picture of a life that has gone completely wrong and tries to establish what was eating away at the emotionally strung out serial killer, then you got what the filmmaker was aiming for. Whether this is enough to make it a worthwhile film is up to each viewer to judge for themselves. The film is not only unpleasant to watch, but difficult to judge. The only thing I took away from the film, which was not part of its aim or the direction it was heading in, was that there’s a need for prostitutes (like it or not!) and it would be much wiser to have a system like the one in Amsterdam that legalizes it and avoids all the problems of having streetwalkers work the roadsides.
REVIEWED ON 2/9/2004 GRADE: B-