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Monster   A-

Newmarket Films

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Patty Jenkins
Writer: Patty Jenkins
Cast: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Scott Wilson, Lee Tergesen, Pruitt Taylor Vince.

Review by Rob Vaux

Glamour girl goes ugly. Über-hottie dares to be less than attractive. The word on Monster bears all the signs of an actor's stunt -- specifically Charlize Theron's, a decent yet unremarkable performer whose stock-supermodel looks have cemented a steady stream of mid-level studio films. She's good enough to keep working, but she's never really distinguished herself (quick, name one movie she's done without checking the IMDb). Then along comes Monster, and a chance to pull out all those tricks that convince people you're for real. Put on the weight, grease out the hair, shave the eyebrows, and wear splotchy makeup to hide that creamy complexion. Suddenly, everyone's supposed to take you seriously. It's old hat with thespians these days, usually serving their vanity more than anything else. And yet Theron looks it all in the eye and responds with a power that is impossible to deny. Within the opening 15 minutes, the gimmick disappears. In its place is a woman -- not a character but a woman -- so charged and truthful that her status as artifice vanishes from our minds. There is no Charlize Theron in Monster; it's dominated by Aileen Wuornos.

The film's tragic central figure was an alcoholic Florida prostitute who murdered seven johns in the 1980s. She was executed in 2002, one of the only female serial killers in U.S. history, and the echoes of her case haunt every frame of the story here. Director Patty Jenkins approaches it as a strange form of feminine empowerment: Thelma and Louise twisted through the darkest possible mirror. Aileen comes into life terminally damaged. Abused by her family, pregnant at 13 and practically turning tricks for food, she first appears to us at the end of her rope. She staggers into a lesbian bar with her last $5, intending to spend them on booze before blowing her brains out. But then up walks Selby (Christina Ricci), whose life in the closet senses a kindred spirit in this angry figure crouching on the stool. Aileen, bereft of any human kindness, reciprocates her affection as a means of delaying oblivion. Romance quickly blooms, tumultuous and isolating, but also heartfelt, as neither woman can find anything else worth living for. Naturally, it dooms them both.

Monster truly grabs us in the juxtaposition between Aileen's desperate efforts to hang on to her lover and the subsequent killings that come to define her "career." Jenkins displays -- without condoning in the slightest -- how logically and rationally she descends into bloodshed... and how Selby's need for support perpetrates the atrocities. Driven to do right by this girl, Aileen returns to the streets, hoping to earn enough to keep her happy. The first murder is an act of survival, a trick gone bad that couldn't have ended without one of them in a ditch. She killed the man, she claims, to get back to Selby: she was unwilling to let go of the only person who ever loved her. From then on, it gets increasingly easier. Shooting the men keeps them from brutalizing her, nets her their money and their car, and lets her indulge in hopeless fantasies of escaping with Selby. Jenkins never flinches from the reality of the killings -- and eventually reveals a horrendous bill come due -- and yet keeps Aileen's hurtful, injured humanity intact. In her own sick way, the murders make her stronger as a person, and though she's clearly guilty, so too are the men who have brought her to this sorry state.

It wouldn't be possible without Theron. The makeup and hair serve solely to mask her appearance (you'd never know it was her if you weren't told); the rest of the performance requires something much more subtle. If she wanted to play it safe, she would have rung up the pity factor, letting us bleed for this poor little girl whom the world has destroyed. Instead, Theron brings a predatory intensity to Aileen, letting her seethe with impotent rage and barely concealed contempt for even the fundaments of morality. And yet we care for her. We feel her pain and understand why she behaves as she does while still being horrified by her acts. If Theron had gone too far in one direction or the other, the whole project might have collapsed. But so completely does she embody this woman's soul that she never has the chance to devolve into cliché.

Bolstered by that (and by admirable turns from Ricci and Bruce Dern as Aileen's only true friend), Monster becomes far more than a showcase for star ego. Would we have been as impressed if we hadn't seen the same woman on the cover of Cosmo? Truth be told it doesn't matter. Theron's accomplishment is still spectacular, and the surprise of it is just one more asset to this film's credit. Like most serial killer stories, Monster isn't easy to watch. Thanks to Theron and the rock-steady work of those around her, it's equally difficult to forget.

Review published 01.13.2004.

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