Monster Movie Review

Curvy, leggy, drop-dead gorgeous Charlize Theron ("The Italian Job," "Mighty Joe Young") has always had the chops to play deeper and more challenging roles than the girlfriends and temptresses she's been making a living from since her cat-fighting sexpot debut in "2 days in the Valley." But to date few in Hollywood have seen past her looks.

That's about to change.

The actress has made an astonishing physical and quintessential transformation to play leather-hearted truck-stop prostitute and serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the riveting, bleak and exceptionally intuitive biopic "Monster," and I guarantee she'll be taken seriously from now on.

Theron gained 30 pounds of cottage-cheesy cellulite, let her hair turn soap-washed stringy and her skin become uninviting splotchy -- but that's all cosmetic. Her real makeover comes from the inside out: You can see every hard mile of Wuornos' onerous drifter life in her crotch-scratching trucker carriage, in her sour, defensive, jowly, curled-lip, snaggle-toothed frown and especially in her unconsciously despairing black eyes.

Her false swagger hides a tangible vulnerability and even a greedy-but-sincere protectiveness that emerges when, on a day she'd "spent most of the day in the rain thinking about killing myself," Wuornos meets Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a naive, beleaguered, girlie-butch teenager fresh out of the closet and subsequently kicked out of her father's house.

"Monster" is anchored in the opportunistic devotion between these two women, Aileen ravenous for genuine affection and Selby looking in all the wrong places for a savior. But any slim chance Wuornos has of turning her life around as a result (she tries to give up her $20 road-side hooking but goes straight back after a string of humiliating job interviews) comes to a crashing halt the night she's knocked out, tied up and raped by a john. She gets loose and fervidly shoots the guy six times with the rusty old revolver she'd held to her head a few weeks before. With the stealing of his car and his wallet, she feels a rush of panicked self-determination that opens the floodgates to years of pent-up revulsion and a desire for retribution visited upon almost every other man that picks her up from that day forward.

Rookie writer-director Patty Jenkins has an impressive grasp on the film's increasingly desperate moods (many of them enhanced with a curiously captivating and almost profound soundtrack of '80s hair-band anthems) and a carefully balanced yet unforgiving empathy toward her subject. She paints her characters -- even Selby's judgmental fundamentalist family -- with an emotional complexity that the gripping performances only enhance.

Ricci gives her character a perfectly pitched nascent fragility that is the basis of her relationship with Wuornos, which turns sexual only when Aileen comes to feel comfortable and safe by knowing she has the upper hand. (After their first kiss, Selby says, "I thought you didn't like girls," and Aileen replies "I didn't like anybody, really.")

But while Ricci deserves her due, Theron deserves an Oscar. This is not stunt casting and it's not a cry-for-credibility performance. There is not a single inflection, glance or gesture in her portrayal that isn't 100-percent steeped in the long history of mounting psychological scars that turned Wuornos into a prostitute and a killer (the real Wuornos was executed in 2002) -- and that kind of submergence in such a disquieting role comes only with dedication, fearlessness and real talent.


Monster Rating

" Good "

Rating: R, LIMITED: Friday, December 26, 2003<br> EXPANDS: Friday, January 9, 2004<br> EXPANDS: Friday, January 16, 2004


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