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MONSTER (R) (2003)

Newmarket Films

Official Site

Director: Patty Jenkins

Producers: Charlize Theron, Mark Damon, Clark Peterson, Donald Kushner, Brad Wyman

Written by: Patty Jenkins

Cast: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Scott Wilson, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Lee Tergesen, Annie Corley

Rating: out of 5

Ever since the runaway success of thrillers like Silence Of The Lambs, the subject of real-life serial killers has become ripe fodder for Hollywood films. In fact there has been such an avalanche of serial killer films, it seems they have become a genre unto themselves. And when the facts of the crime include the unusual feature that the killer is a woman, the subject elicits even greater fascination.

Such is the case with Aileen Wuornos, the homeless prostitute convicted in the early 1990s of killing her clients along a Florida stretch of Interstate 95. Wuornos subsequently spent 12 years in prison before her sentence of death was carried out in October of 2002, but in between that time, she was billed as the first female serial killer and her case attracted national attention. In addition to the intense media frenzy that followed her, Wuornos became the subject of a both a film and a documentary. In the late 1990s her life history was converted to a PG-rated made-for-television movie starring actress Jean Smart, who came across as shiny, clean, and a bit too old for the part. Preceding this in 1992, Wuornos was the focus of documentarian Nick Broomfield’s Aileen Wuornos: The Selling Of A Serial Killer. But Broomfield’s film hardly counts as a legitimate exploration of Wuornos’s life. The notoriously narcissistic director’s true focus was his own outlandish tribulations he endured while attempting to procure an interview with his subject. His treatment of Wuornos mostly as an afterthought, did however, secure his reputation as the PT Barnum of documentaries. (Broomfield returned to this subject in 2003, with Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer.)

Monster, written and directed by Patty Jenkins, corrects these prior shortcomings by at long last giving Wuornos herself center stage without sentimentalizing either her story or her victims’ tragic fate. Jenkins instead angles for a lesbian-love story gone awry and in the process, the script offers up a rich, compelling characterization that penetrates the one-dimensional offerings of the past. Taking us through low-life bars and cheap motels, Jenkins’ film also has a crisp indie-feel about it. In addition to the near-perfect set designs and costumery, Monster also receives a boost through Theron’s transformation into a grackle-like street hooker. With the help of make-up artist Toni G, the normally statuesque Theron is changed from a Hollywood starlet into a sun-baked, flabby street wench. Theron’s mastery of her character equally aids in making that change credible. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance, as Theron swaggers and rages about the screen, moving gradually from a place of minor paranoia and wariness to an eventual mindset that is openly unhinged and spewing venom. Theron so absorbs herself in the part you can almost smell the stench of her body. This is true particularly in one scene when she attempts to clean herself up in a gas station bathroom, pounding repeatedly on the automatic hand dryer while shouting back at a thwarted customer who is pounding on the outside door.

Monster is also effective because it focuses mostly on the ill-fated relationship between Wuornos and her lover Selby (Ricci). In fact Jenkins’ story largely begins when Selby and Aileen, or Lee, as she calls herself, first meet in a Florida bar. Escaping from a downpour, but contemplating suicide with only five dollars to her name, Wuornos unwittingly enters a gay nightclub; though she loudly and homophobically professes to the other patrons that she’s not gay and just wants a beer. It is here that the desperate, needy Selby plops herself down next to Lee and offers to buy a pitcher. It seems the two might be able to save each other from life’s miseries, but Wuornos has her own needs as well. She has nary a friend in the world and is living in a small rented storage shed, earning a meager living by hooking up and down a stretch of interstate highway. She herself is so love-starved that she blindly reaches out to Selby as well and embarks on a first-time lesbian relationship. She acts as the “top,” the bread-winning dominant, to Selby’s passive, stay at home “bottom.” The problem is Selby cannot live up to her end of the arrangement. She can never offer salvation, in fact she fails to even offer affection or patience, and her immature tantrums eventually end up pushing Wuornos to extreme ends. This complicity is perhaps the real tragedy of Wuornos’s reprehensible actions. She ends up taking sole responsibility for the murders, but clearly Selby contributed to Wuornos’s fate, culminating in the ultimate penalty of death.

Finally, Monster works on yet another level. Jenkins’ film effectively serves as a subtle recrimination against capital punishment, (more so than Kevin Spacey’s not so subtle The Life Of David Gale, which practically hit its audiences over the head with its moral indignation). The audience comes to see that Wuornos never had any kind of a chance at all; she’s a pitiable figure of Shakespearian proportions. She is anything but a monster, which is exactly what Jenkins intended for us to think.

—Nancy Semin

 

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

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Itís worth a matinee ticket.

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Mike Doughty



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