MONSTER **** USA 2003 Dir: Patty Jenkins. 109 mins
The title itself is subjective: writer-director Patty Jenkins doesn’t dilute the crimes of executed “white trash” Florida murderer Aileen Wuornos (who, at the time, had recently been the subject of Nick Broomfield’s widely admired documentaries), nor does she mute her abrasive personality. But, in removing the usual real-life serial killer movie cliches, Jenkins crafts the empathetic story of one woman’s struggle (and failure) to turn her life around, punctuated by black humour, perceptive observations and non-sensationalistic depictions of the killings themselves.
Charlize Theron won a deserved Oscar for a role that followed a sequence of glamorous (but impressively layered) portrayals of girlfriends / wives-in-distress in interesting Hollywood genre movies like THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE and THE ASTRONAUT’S WIFE. Much was made of her physical transformation (extra weight, unflattering hairdo, bad teeth, etc.) but, beyond the bravura make-up job, she inhabits Wuornos in every respect: the hard-edged exterior, the vulnerability, the vocals and body language. Wuornos becomes a three-dimensional figure, not just the “notorious serial killer” luridly conveyed by the tabloids then and now. Just as remarkable, and often overlooked, is Christina Ricci (hitherto usually cast as sarcastic, independent girls and women) in an unusually sweet-natured, genteel portrait of Wuornos’ girlfriend Selby, herself escaping a solitary life with her religious family.
A suitably misanthropic narration by Theron / Wuornos mocks Hollywood “Love conquers all” cliches while the central narrative follows a downward spiral as she realises her optimistic, idealistic promises to Selby will never be fulfilled despite the bold efforts to start a better life. Wuornos’ background – raped repeatedly from the age of eight, on the streets at thirteen – is grimly captured while the (gruelling) encounter that sparks her rampage is appropriately shocking yet non-exploitative.
Unfolding mostly to a well chosen, unobtrusive soundtrack of contemporary tunes and deftly balancing the horrific with the tragicomic, this endures as a standout example of its kind and, though largely a two-hander, has small but memorable roles for Bruce Dern, Pruitt Taylor Vince and, as an undercover cop who secures Wuornos’ incarceration, Kane Hodder.
Review by Steven West