Written and directed by Patty Jenkins, “Monster” is a powerful, unflinching movie based on a true story that dares to humanize the woman best known as “America’s first female serial killer.”
When one thinks of serial killers, it is impossible not to think of the countless number of movies modeled after “The Silence of the Lambs,” with dysfunctional, fetished murderers. And let’s not forget, of course, the sensationalized “Seven” rip-off killers, who are at once brilliant and conniving.
But the story as “Monster” tells it, is more trailer trash than Lecter-esque, more “Paradise Lost” than it is “Copycat.” Charlize Theron, in an eye-opening role, portrays Aileen Wournos, a prostitute whose self-worth is at the lowest ebb of her all-time low life. Years of hooking and living on the fringe has her feeling suicidal and completely alone. She meets Selby (Christina Ricci), a confused and opportunistic 18-year old lesbian who is fascinated by Aileen (or Lee). Their ensuing relationship is not only Lee’s new reason to live, but also one catalyst for the string of murders that follows.
The other catalyst is a rape and beating she receives from one of her clients. The first murder is a payback killing for every man who ever treated her like dirt, and although it isn’t technically self-defense, it has everyone in the theater on her side.
This is not a sector of American life that is portrayed very often on the screen. The scenes that follow, as Lee tries to go straight and get a job to support Selby, are by equal turns giggle-worthy and horribly heartbreaking. There is hope in Lee’s eyes for the first time in the movie, and knowing what you know about the real-life Wuornos makes her misguided dream all the more tragic.
The more Lee sees her situation as unavoidable, the more things spiral out of control. Theron has a remarkable presence in “Monster,” and conveys so much of Lee’s desperation in her expressive eyes. The incredible transformation of Theron’s face is no small feat either, thanks in part to makeup artist Toni G. Her body language is confrontational and infantile at the same time. She uses a bad-ass attitude to cover up her insecurities.
As much as she enjoys the power of striking back, her morale declines as her conscience catches up to her and her one ray of hope vanishes.
Ricci plays Selby with just the right amount of naivete. Like any immature person in love, she is flighty. Ricci allows Selby’s eye to wander, but eventually she sees Lee as something of a (meal) ticket to her own personal freedom. As convincing as she is in the role, she is a bit miscast. This is only because she is too attractive to be truly interested in Lee.
Jenkins doesn’t excuse the murders by any means, but does dare to cast a somewhat sympathetic gaze on Wournos. Theron ably shows Lee’s simplistic view of right and wrong, making the entire situation a tragic affair all the way around.
The tabloid-like press that covered the real-life killings is now revealed for the cruel and cheap horror show that it was, and a human story fleshes out the legend.
“Monster” is a remarkable for telling a story about people whose stories are never seen on the big screen. And it does it under the disguise of a “serial killer” movie. I mean, let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment. Would we be even remotely interested in the story of a destitute hooker if she hadn’t killed a bunch of people?
I think not. But “Monster” is a wholly engrossing tale, and Theron is a revelation, absolutely riveting.