Monster (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

An understanding of how society uses - and, more importantly, misuses - the term "monster" offers crucial insight into the intentions of first time filmmaker Patty Jenkins. Without offering justifications or excuses, Jenkins seeks to provide some understanding of the underlying motivation of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who murdered seven men during 1989. She was subsequently tried, found guilty, and executed in 2002. By exploring details primarily from Wuornos' viewpoint (Jenkins spent considerable time with the convicted killer while she was on death row, and uses excerpts from Wuornos' letters for the film's voiceover narratives), Monster eschews the easy path of transforming her into a one-dimensional psycho. Instead, without diminishing the horror of her actions, the picture humanizes Wuornos, developing a three-dimensional character where one might not normally expect to find one.

Which kind of monster is Wuornos - the vile, despicable, soulless thing that stalks innocent victims, or the rejected and misunderstood misanthrope (think "Frankenstein's monster")? Most of us would like to believe the former, since it makes a government-sponsored execution more palatable. After all, who could argue against such a reprehensible human being removed from the ranks of the living? But facile answers, while the most satisfying, are rarely those containing the greatest portion of truth. Monster is not the definitive take on Wuornos or her killing spree, but, as an alternative perspective, it gives one pause. Few with open minds will leave this movie undisturbed.

Aside from the movie's unique approach to a story involving a serial killer (no one will think of it as a slasher film), there is another persuasive reason to see Monster - it displays one of the most impressive examples of acting by a woman in the last ten years. The process that transforms the glamorous Charlize Theron into the haggard, homely Wuornos is nothing short of astounding. And, while a measure of the credit must be given to the makeup artists, the lion's share belongs to Theron - not only for her willingness to play "ugly," but for the uncompromising approach she employs to become the character. In addition to gaining 25 pounds and letting her well-toned body sag in some unflattering areas, she perfectly adapts the attitude and mannerisms of a white trash prostitute. Theron's presence and physical appearance have been overwritten by Wuornos'. What she has accomplished here puts Nicole Kidman's Oscar-winning nose-job to shame. No actress has done a more impressive job in 2003 - the only question is whether enough people will see it for the deserved awards to be distributed.

The movie introduces us to Aileen Wuornos before she kills anyone. She already has a gun, but plans to take only one life - her own. Before committing suicide, however, she wants a drink, and fate leads her into a gay bar where she encounters Selby (Christina Ricci, continuing to cement her reputation as an adult actress willing to accept edgy parts), a painfully shy lesbian who is looking for a friend. Improbably, Aileen and Selby form a bond. For Aileen, who is craving some form of affection to give meaning to a barren life, Selby is her salvation. But, as is often the case when it comes to mad love, the brief burst of redemption gives way to a clinging co-dependency. After the first murder, Selby becomes Aileen's enabler - initially unknowing, then with a gradual recognition (and perhaps perverse enjoyment) of her power. What we initially mistake for love (typified by the "cute" roller rink scene, which could have been extracted from any romantic comedy) turns into something dark and unhealthy.

Aileen's initial kill is justifiable. Having been beaten and raped by a man, she uses the gun in self-defense. This starts a journey down a slippery slope. Aileen's victims become progressively more innocent, with the final one simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. With a dead or dying conscience, she dispatches him and seals her fate. Jenkins presents the murders in a straightforward manner. Although we understand Aileen's reasoning, we neither sympathize nor empathize with her. Monster asks for a measure of comprehension, not identification. It wants us to understand what led Aileen to kill and kill again, not to absolve her of the responsibility for her crimes. And it demands that we consider what role (if any) society may have played in the murders. That approach, more than any other, defuses charges of exploitation and moral indifference, marking this as a compelling, thought-provoking, and unsettling drama.

Monster (United States, 2003)

Director: Patty Jenkins
Cast: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern
Screenplay: Patty Jenkins
Cinematography: Steven Bernstein
Music: BT
U.S. Distributor: Newmarket Film Group
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2003-12-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1