Looking for a fun night at the movies for you and your family or significant other? Then skip the new drama, Monster.
Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Patty Jenkins, Monster is based on the true-life story of Aileen Wuornos, a roadside prostitute turned serial killer who was executed in 2002 for the murders of a half-dozen men.
The film opens with a quick recap of Aileen’s childhood and teen years in Michigan, ones filled with abuse and neglect. By the age of 13, Aileen was pregnant, had an abortion and started to work as a prostitute.
The story then jumps to the nine-month period from 1989 and 1990, during which Wuornos (Charlize Theron), now a highway prostitute in Florida, had a lesbian relationship with a woman named Selby (Christina Ricci). That relationship became the first non-abusive, loving one that Wuornos had encountered in her entire lifetime. Aileen attempted to quit hooking and get a legitimate occupation to support Selby, but failed miserably and soon found herself back out on the streets to earn a living for them.
One night, Aileen is brutally raped and beaten by one of her customers. She manages to fight back and, in a justifiable act of self-defence, murders the man by shooting him several times. But what should have been an isolated incident instead serves as the springboard for Wuornos to begin her murder spree that would claim five more men, including a law official.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Monster is an unsettling film to experience. Jenkins creates an atmosphere that is as unglamorous as the story’s lead character, which helps keep the ugly nature of the events in check throughout without sugar-coating them.
While Jenkins scores points for maintaining the proper atmosphere, she loses a great deal of them by simplifying events. A Brief history of Wuornos’ troubled child and teen years and the occasional voice-over to add information here and there aside; Jenkins’ screenplay is not enough to paint a completely convincing picture of an individual as complex as Wuornos. Main story points are presented, but aren’t examined or developed deep enough, making the film more like a highlights reel than the uncompromising docu-drama it could, and should, have been.
I was also put off a bit by Jenkins’ feminist slant. While I will be the first to agree that a majority of the worldwide male populace is scum and that a fraction of them deserve the same fate as Aileen’s first victim, would it really have taken that much additional effort from Jenkins to at least put in one sympathetic male character that wasn’t a drunk (played by Bruce Dern) or a helpless victim (Scott Wilson)? The answer is apparently “yes”.
What saves Monster are the lead performances by Theron and Ricci. We’ve heard non-stop hype and huzzahs about Charlize Theron’s Raging Bull-esque transformation from Hollywood beauty into white-trash monster, and the powerful performance that accompanies it, for months now. Fortunately, this is one of those rare instances where we can believe the hype: Theron’s work is complex, utterly convincing and definitely Oscar-worthy.
Theron’s performance is much more than just a physical overhaul. Granted, the make-up and additional weight she put on help with convincing us, but the realism, depth and power that comes from within Theron is what really makes it work. Thanks to her performance, we feel the desperation, loneliness and rage of Wuornos. She elicits both sympathy and disgust in equal amounts and by the film’s mid-point, she also instils fear into us. Charlize Theron manages to accomplish a lot of what Patty Jenkins tried, and failed, to do.
Ricci succeeds in holding her own against the film’s lead. She hasn’t undergone any major physical transformation like her co-star, but in her own quiet, restrained way, she makes a solid impression. She certainly has come a long way from The Addams Family movies…
Monster is an actor’s showcase, no two ways around it. If you can stomach the subject matter and look past the film’s debits, you will find two fine lead performances, including one that will be very hard to shake from memory any time soon.