Directed by Patty Jenkins. Starring Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Scott Wilson, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Lee Tergesen, Annie Corley. (2003, R, 111 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 16, 2004
Aileen Wuornos – popularly dubbed America’s first female serial killer – has served as the subject of at least one TV docudrama, two documentaries by the ambulance-chasing filmmaker Nick Broomfield, and now this feature film, Monster, written and directed by first-timer Patty Jenkins. Despite its title, Monster is the most compassionate rendering of the bunch, giving dimension and ambiguity to this roadside prostitute who killed seven male motorists/johns in Florida during the Eighties and was executed for her crimes in 2002. Some social analysts quickly seized on Wuornos as a misguided symbol of feminist rage, a victim whose childhood abandonment and sexual abuse caused her to live alone in the woods and turn tricks in cars for strangers and schoolboys by the time she had reached adolescence. She eventually left Michigan and wound up turning tricks in Florida, where the climate was better suited to her lifestyle. When we first meet Wuornos (Theron) in Monster it is prior to her string of killings, and she hardly seems the image of a psychopathic killer. In fact, in these opening moments she is about to turn her gun on herself, finally extinguishing her pained life and turmoil. Instead, she heads to the nearest bar – a gay bar – for a drink and meets Selby Wall (a fictionalized version of Wuornos’ real-life lover, who turned Wuornos in to the authorities and about whom there is a measure of debate regarding what she knew and when she knew it). Selby (Ricci) is a passive manipulator, unwilling to work at a job but always whining to Lee (as Aileen is called in this movie) about their lack of funds. The aggressive, ill-mannered, and butch Lee (who says she’s never had sex with a woman before, something that differs in other accounts) is everything the diminutive and meek Selby is not. The fascination with each other and the love they share is mutual. For Lee, this may be the first real affection she has ever experienced in life, and it’s enough to make her want to become a new woman and find a new line of work. The sequence in the movie in which she goes job-hunting is excruciating to watch: She’s about as prepared for office work as Tarzan is for rocket science. Wanting to keep Selby happy, Lee returns to hooking, even though she has become frightened of the work and her own capacities since she recently murdered a john who brutally raped her. Disturbingly, we can see things from her perspective: That first murder is arguably justifiable; we can understand her self-defense and anger. But at what point do her murders become pathological acts? And if we can empathize with the first murder, then what separates this monster from ourselves? Maybe Wuornos isn’t the film’s "monster," but rather a victim of something monstrous. Certainly, the much-ballyhooed performance of Theron is ferocious and terrifying. Dental prosthetics and make-up afford Theron (who is also one of the film’s producers) a striking resemblance to Wuornos, and the actress has clearly studied her subject’s body movements and demeanor. If you didn’t know that this was the same actress who provided window dressing for so many lackluster movies, the realization would be startling. Without taking away from the power of her performance, I suspect much of the praise she’s currently receiving is really applause for her willingness to erase her beauty with extra flesh, bad skin, and a foul temper. Captured and alone at the end, Lee’s ravings sound like those of a crazy woman. (In real life, she recanted parts of her story.) Monster doesn’t provide any answers, and that’s both its strength and weakness. Jenkins lets the monster out of the box and then refuses to stuff it back in.