January 5th, 2004
Patty Jenkins’s “Monster” attempts to take the ferocious life of famous serial killer Aileen Wuornos and stuff it into a love story of heartbreaking aspirations. The effort fails miserably, with only Charlize Theron’s heady performance as Wuornos the real saving grace of this unquestionably misguided film.
As a child, Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) dreamed of being a Hollywood star, but years of abuse left her bitter, angry, and desiring an emotional connection to anyone who would give her the time of day. With a life in the Florida gutters, making small change turning tricks and soaking her dreams in alcohol, Wuornos has found affection in the arms of Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a young lesbian stuck in her own domestic disputes. Wuornos lavishes attention on Selby, even convincing her to run away together and try to make a life of their own. Basking in the glow of unconditional affection, Wuornos’s bubble is popped when it comes time to make money to support their lifestyle, returning her to the Florida interstates and the endless johns she must service to make ends meet. But when one situation goes horribly wrong, Wuornos develops a tolerance for murder, and soon begins to patrol the streets looking for abusive johns to slaughter for cash.
Making her writing/directing debut with “Monster” is Patty Jenkins, and she has chosen for herself a difficult subject to translate to the screen. The most famous female serial killer in history, the tale of Aileen Wuornos has already been covered in a hazy 1992 Nick Broomfield documentary, as well as being slavishly followed by tabloid television for a decade now. “Monster” attacks Wuornos from the viewpoint of her love life, and quest to preserve her fragile relationship with her lover, Selby. There are no major courtroom sequences or much storytelling after her capture (Aileen was put to death in 2002). Though based on a true story, “Monster” is a thoroughly dramatic representation of the facts, and the picture often slips out of Jenkins’s hands and loses its identity in the process.
It goes without saying that Charlize Theron’s performance is the only reason “Monster” has a chance at some sort of identity. Devastatingly beautiful, Theron has had an unremarkable career playing tearful heroines in films that only occasionally hit the jackpot (“The Italian Job”). “Monster” provides Theron (she also produced the film) a big, meaty t-bone to gnaw on in the acting department; altering her body shape, face, gaining a trashy Floridian drawl, and basically doing whatever she can get away with to embody Wuornos in every single aspect. On the outside, this is an impressive feat. Trust me, you have never seen Theron quite like this before. She is a lightning rod of misery in a film that often doesn’t have much going on, and just witnessing this transformation is enough of a reason to recommend “Monster.” Where Jenkins has the loopy and amateurish notion to pawn this chilling story off as a tragic romance, Theron keeps Wuornos an impulsive loose cannon, and is the only one to address the killer’s clearly evident mental handicaps. Theron’s performance does get carried away here and there as Wuornos rages to achieve the manifest destiny she violently desires, but this seems to be an after effect of Jenkins inability to grasp a clear visualization for her movie, made even worse by the dreadful turn from Christine Ricci in the crucial role of Wuornos’s emotional Shangri-la.
Where Jenkins gets into the most trouble is the sure-to-be controversial decision to humanize Wuornos to a point where her murders are almost justified. I say almost because “Monster” is a film with a goal to shed a different light on someone who we assume was cold-blooded and thoughtless in her every action. The truth is that Wuornos was a severely physically and sexually abused woman who ended up with a life she could barely support and without an reasonable outlet to calm her pain. Through Wuornos’s contradictory narration and the harrowing sequences of her oily, disturbing prostitution encounters, Jenkins paints quite a portrait of a life that was destined for failure and destruction from the very minute it began. “Monster” is convincing when it digs deep into the psyche of the killer and tries to line up plausible pathways to understand where this violent behavior was born. In following this path a little too blindly, Jenkins loses focus quickly, and soon begins to coddle Wuornos. The real reason Aileen Wuornos began killing in the end was for money, but Jenkins hypothesizes that these murders were done out mostly of defense, both physical and emotional. Wuornos is a heartbreaking figure, there is no possible argument against that. But to trivialize serial murder in exchange for character empathy that is already in place through the careful nuance of the lead actress is wasteful of screen time.
For a film about such an intricate character, “Monster” isn’t all that complex a film. Wuornos deserves a more comprehensive study than Broomfield’s documentary entertainment, or this collection of vagaries suggesting a portrait. The last frames of the film propose that “Monster” was a tragic love story above all else. If that was what Jenkins is going for, why bother to use the ferocious experiences of Aileen Wuornos in the first place?
My rating: C