In the world of today, right is right, wrong is wrong, and someone
who kills another person in cold blood is instantly viewed as an evil,
irredeemable entity. It's really as simple as that, and there is little
gray area when it comes to the popular census. Based on the true story
of Aileen Wournos, a prostitute who was labeled "the f irst female
serial killer" after murdering six johns' in the 1980s, "Monster"
does not try to compensate Aileen's heinous actions, nor does it ask
that she even be sympathetic. Instead, in her highly auspicious directing
debut, Patty Jenkins' goal is for the viewer to simply understand
how someone like Aileen might be pushed to commit such crimes, especially
when the entire world around her becomes a consistent disappointment
with few other options. The film, and its cumulative emotional effect,
is something of a brilliant, passionate, unflinching tour de force.
A highway prostitute in Daytona Beach, Florida, since her early teens,
thirtysomething Aileen Wournos (Charlize Theron) is an eternal lost
soul about to end her own life when fate intervenes at a lowly gay
bar in the form of 18-year-old Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). Selby
is something of a lost soul herself, a lesbian still discovering her
own sexuality who has been kicked out by her dad for coming out of
the closet. Aileen defensively denies being gay when Selby approaches
her, but after a few rounds of drinks, they have made a connection
that quickly turns to genuine love.
Aileen has never had another person care about her in the way that
Selby does, and she clings to it, using her new relationship as a
sign to go straight in her life and do away with hooking. Unfortunately,
a legitimate job is not as easy to come by as Aileen expects, particularly
with a police record attached to her name. When a hookup goes bad
and Aileen is assaulted and raped, she manages to kill her attacker
in self-defense. Miserable in her dead-end profession and frustrated
with men, Aileen's dark unconscious is suddenly unleashed from this
fatalistic incident. In its wake, Aileen gradually creates a bloodbath
across central Florida that has no way of ending but badly.
"Monster" is not a serial killer movie in the sensational sense of
the term, but one that feels all too real, and was. In her powerful,
multifaceted portrait of Aileen Wournos, writer-director Patty Jenkins
does not absolve Aileen of her crimes, but does make a convincing
argument that her actions were at least partially the result of a
life that was basically one bum deal after the next. By the time Aileen
grows aspirations to do more with her life, her past actions have
already sealed the deal on her grim fate from which there is no escape.
In one painfully frank moment, Aileen goes to an employment agency
and is told pointblank that with her police record the best she could
ever possibly hope for is a minimum-wage factory job.
After she gets away with her self-defense murder (the newspapers state
that there are no leads), Aileen comes to the conclusion that she
doesn't need to demean herself in order to get paid; in her mind,
it is easier and more convenient to simply dispose of her oily clients
in exchange for their car and all of their money. In turning to killing,
however, Aileen gets in way over her head, ultimately leading to the
death of a well-meaning, would-be savior (Scott Wilson) who only wanted to help her out.
There are no deserved words to describe the performance of Charlize
Theron (2003's "The Italian Job"), one of the most gorgeous actresses
in Hollywood, who has gone through a phy sical transformation unlike
any, or many, others. Outside of her weight gain and flawless make-up
work by Toni G, Theron's work is a fearless powerhouse. She does not
simply mimic her real-life counterpart, but somehow has cosmically
burrowed herself into Wournos' own skin, becoming her. Charlize Theron
has been very good in the past, but has never been given a role that
allowed her to unveil how much acting talent and range she really
had. From her body language, alternately self-imploding and filled
with an underlying rage able to pop at any time, to her speech, to
even the way she handles and smokes her cigarettes as if they are
a utensil for showing off, Theron embodies from the inside out someone
other than herself, and uncompromisingly does it with the depth, the
foresight, and the humanity that can only be said of the best-ever
performances in the history of cinema. Like Hilary Swank's in 1999's
"Boys Don't Cry," an equally brilliant and tonally similar drama,
Charlize Thero n's performance as Aileen Wournos is one for the record books.
In the less showy but critical part of Selby Wall, Christina Ricci's
(2003's "Anything Else") performance is a revelation that may be overlooked
in favor of Theron's, but shouldn't be. In some ways, Ricci has the
trickiest role. Selby is a quirky, somewhat gullible young woman still
trying to find her place in the world, but she is not stupid, and
suspects what Aileen has been doing long before she openly acknowledges
it. How else to describe the constant change in car and the sudden
increase in cash flow? Selby desperately loves Aileen, but as the
stakes are raised she becomes frightened for the both of them, and
realizes how in over her head she is. Like Theron, Ricci's every action,
every piece of body language, and every line of dialogue paints a
distinct, fleshed-out, richly drawn true original of a character. She is phenomenal.
"Monster," which gets its name from a giant carnival ferris wheel
Aileen was scared to get on as a child, is the most humanistic portrayal
of a serial killer I can recall having seen, filled with raw power
and unsuspecting beauty. The production design by Edward T. McAvoy
(2003's "Deliver Us from Eva"), costumes by Rhona Meyers, cinematography
by Steven Bernstein (2001's "Corky Romano"), and music choices create
such an unmistakable time and place that they effortlessly refuse
to call attention to themselves. And the vital use of the song, "Don't
Stop Believin'," by Journey, is poignant and magical bordering of down right incendiary.
Executed by lethal injection in 2002, there is no doubt Aileen Wournos
was guilty of the crimes for which she was committed, but "Monster"
heartbreakingly yearns for us to consider the circumstances that lead
to her downfall. We do not have to like Aileen Wournos, director Jenkins
seems to be saying, but we should at least consider her life's path
as a tragedy in and of itself in a world that refused to give her
a break. "Monster" is a fair, thought-provoking, unshakable masterpiece,
one of 2003's most unforgettable in a decidedly lackluster year for the world of film.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman