By Chris Barsanti
Thank God that Monster, the fictionalized story of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, wasn't made back in the 1990s, when filmmakers just couldn't fetishize mass murder enough. Wuornos's story would have been "loosely adapted" so that they could have cast someone attractive in the role, there would have been a slick grunge soundtrack and plenty of hipster humor amidst the bloodletting. That's not to say that movies haven't stopped their love affair with the serial killer, but Monster shows that it is possible to make a gripping, yet still dispassionate and non-exploitative film on the subject.
Wuornos is famous not just for the fact that she killed seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990, but for being pretty much the only female serial killer of note in recent American history. A troubled girl who had been on her own since she was 13 and had survived by prostitution, Wuornos claimed, up until her execution in 2002, that she had acted in self-defense each time. Writer/director Patty Jenkins's script manages to show how self-serving and untrue this story ultimately became while at the same time acknowledging how Wuornos's past and profession led to her killing spree. There's a wonderful moment in a dingy biker bar where a self-pitying Wuornos is consoled by her friend Thomas (Bruce Dern), a Vietnam veteran; they take turns volleying variations on "What choice did I have?" back and forth in an attempt to escape culpability for any of their actions.
The smartest decision made by Jenkins was not to make a serial killer movie, but to play Monster as a doomed romance that leads into murder. There's only a brief voiceover as introduction before the film shows us Wuornos meeting her future girlfriend, Selby Wall (Christina Ricci) in a gay bar. Wuornos and Wall are a couple of misfits who fall in love almost because they each may be the only person who really likes talking to the other. Wuornos keeps hooking because it's all she knows how to do, and one night shoots a john after he ties her up and brutalizes her. Soon after, the odd couple hit the road, settling in a dingy rented house. After some painful job interviews, Wuornos goes back to hooking on the highway, her self-loathing quickly boiling over. It's not long until pretty much every john looks like a hateful rapist to her, and as the bodies start to mount.
Jenkins's second smartest decision was to cast Charlize Theron as Wuornos. This is a revelatory movie for Theron, best known up to now as moderately-talented blonde eye candy. She has always had a chameleon-like quality which made it easy to pass her off as a typical model-turned-actress. But her transformation into Wuornos is complete, with waxy-looking, spotted skin, stringy hair, prominent upper teeth and blazing dark eyes. It would have been easy for most actresses to simply hide behind the hideous prosthetic, and there are times when Theron does seem to be acting into a mirror with exaggerated mannerisms, but it's overall an engrossing performance alternating wounded rage with childlike enthusiasm.
Monster does take some missteps, relying far too much at times on Theron's voiceover to fill in gaps in the story, and not really showing us much of Wall's character. And although Jenkins does seem to be hip to the fact that Wuornos was lying about her supposed motivations for all the killings, the film has a tendency to let her off the hook. Ultimately, though, this is a film with a story, concerned much less with shocking audiences than with showing how a brutalized childhood can result in a brutal adult.
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Friday 30th January 2004
Box Office Worldwide: $60.4M
Distributed by: Newmarket Film Group
Production compaines: Newmarket Films
Rotten Tomatoes: 82%
Fresh: 151 Rotten: 33
Cast & Crew