Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Written by: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, and Annie Corley
You don’t have to say someone’s name to show who they are. Some of the best biopics, most notably this one and Todd Hayne’s I’m Not There, never acknowledge the subject’s name until the very end. On IMDB, Charlize Theron is cast simply as Aileen, not Aileen Wuornos.
Monster is proof of a lot of things, most notably that there really isn’t much to a name when you think about it. Selby (Christina Ricci) simply calls her new lover Lee, an affectionate name in comparison to what most other people call her.
Street walker, hooker, prostitute- whatever you want to call her job, it defines her more heavily than anything in the sordid past that led her to it. Monster starts out grabbing for your heartstrings, as Aileen narrates a look at her troubled childhood with a musing about being discovered like Marilyn Monroe. In the enhanced colors of this dreamy flashback, we cut abruptly to her as an adult in the 80’s, sitting under a highway overpass as it pours rain. In this movie, there are happy moments, and there is life.
Many people who disliked Monster when it first came out complained that it sympathized with a serial killer, some people even suggested it excused her. While it does to an extent do the former, the scenes where Wuornos kills, even taunts, in cold blood are harrowing and unsentimental. When you do a biopic, you have to attempt to show the full picture, and this is where the fiction comes in.
The film is set up to follow Lee right as she’s hit rock bottom. She has five dollars to her name and a pistol. She walks into a bar, not knowing it’s a gay one, and meets Selby Wall. Though very reluctant at first, Lee sees the kindness and innocence in Wall, something she’s craved her entire life to both be and connect with. The two fall in love, and flee.
This is not before a brutal “John” sends Aileen over the edge. In one of cinema’s most grueling scenes, she is knocked over the head, tied up, and brutalized by the man. She escapes and uses her pistol to kill him. In interviews, Wuornos is known to suggest that all the men she killed meant to rape her in this way. This incident is the only one the authorities consider valid, but the film shows her snap in such a way that her insanity is finally understood if not excused.
As the bodies pile up and the film reaches its inevitable conclusion, you will find yourself drawn to the character Charlize Theron has embodied like few others. Her performance in Monster was one of the most highly acclaimed in years and it deserved every positive syllable. What she does goes beyond the call of “get ugly” duty. Her facial expressions, voice, and penetrating eyes will haunt you. Most performances have that one scene that earns them an Oscar, but Theron has several.
From her monologue excusing her murders by calling on the hypocrisy of a murderous world to a piercing scene where she flails around the apartment, telling Selby to leave, that “they all leave,” she will hold you in a trance like few screen performers can. It truly is one of the greatest movie performances of all time.
Ricci keeps up with Theron, much in the same way Paul Dano did with Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. It’s a good performance overshadowed by an immortal one.
Jenkins sometimes forgets who the most interesting character in her movie is. Several detractions into Selby’s back story can hold the movie back, if not in a big way. When the camera is front and center on Wuornos, it can’t go wrong. Theron has given us a female take on Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver; an isolated, calculating, doomed product of the American Dream that, in her attempt to integrate into the society that doesn’t want her, becomes the grotesque monster of the American Nightmare.