by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: Patty Jenkins
CAST: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern
MY RATING: 9/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 81% Certified Fresh Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “A Movie Based on a True Story”
PLOT: Charlize Theron gives a searing, deglamorized performance as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, an intense, disquieting portrait of a profoundly damaged soul.
The first time I tried watching Monster, some years ago, I watched it with my girlfriend, but we never finished it. The scene where Aileen Wuornos (Theron) is attacked and raped, leading to her first murder, was so visceral that my girlfriend had to leave the room before it had finished. Since that time, she has watched hours and hours of “true crime” documentaries about Wuornos and Bundy and Manson and Speck and so many others. Go figure. Having finally finished Monster on my own this morning, I believe she could be ready to give this movie another try, although I’m not sure the version of Aileen Wuornos portrayed in the film will have much resemblance to the one seen in all those documentaries.
In the past, I’ve enjoyed movies like Se7en and Silence of the Lambs and even Zodiac, featuring implacable, inhuman murderers with unfathomable motives and blank faces. I enjoyed David Fincher’s series Mindhunters far more than I thought I would, despite its disquieting subject matter, partially because the killers portrayed in that series may seem normal at first, but they are eventually revealed to have massive personality disorders, genuine sociopaths with little to no consciences to speak of. But in Monster, director/screenwriter Patty Jenkins (who wouldn’t direct another film until 2017’s Wonder Woman) denies us the ability to pigeonhole Aileen Wuornos so easily. She pulls a Hitchcock/Psycho on the audience: getting us to root for the ostensible villain even as she commits one murder after another.
Jenkins accomplishes this by showing how a dysfunctional home life and a sometimes apathetic and cruel society ground down a young girl with the same kinds of hopes and dreams we’ve all had into a damaged woman desperately looking for a connection. One such apathetic soul in the film says what I’ve thought so many times in my own past about anyone who makes questionable life choices: “Lots of people have bad lives, and they still choose to move towards the light. Otherwise, we’d all be hookers and druggies.” Well, sure, that’s easy for me to say, with two loving parents, a private school education, living in a 3-bedroom house and a steady job, etcetera. But what choices would I have made if my father knew his friend had been molesting me for years and not only did nothing, but beat ME up for it? What if, in my first job interview, the office manager hadn’t taken a chance on a teenager with no job experience and instead berated me for not having a master’s degree or my own apartment yet?
Monster is not a typical serial killer movie because, while it absolutely does NOT approve of Aileen’s murders, it does not try to pretend she is a mindless, man-hating predator. She is motivated by hopelessness and, as it happens, love. Aileen meets and falls desperately in love with a naïve young woman, Selby Wall (Ricci), the first bright spot in her otherwise bleak existence, and will do anything to keep her in her life. If “anything” happens to encompass hooking and murdering the occasional john, for her it’s a small price to pay for the happiness she has been denied for so long.
Monster has the look of a film shot on a shoestring, much like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which enhances its authenticity, especially when it’s clear the movie was shot in the real locations visited by Aileen and Selby in real life. Having lived in Florida for over 35 years, I recognized the feel of the locations, the city streets crowded with convenience stores and car dealerships and seedy motels. I’m pretty sure I’ve actually been to the “Fun Stop” where Aileen and Selby ride the Ferris wheel. The usage of these real locations made everything feel legitimate, almost like a documentary. (Full disclosure: Selby Wall is loosely based on Aileen’s actual girlfriend, Tyria Moore, but Moore refused to allow her name or likeness to be used in the film and divulged little-to-no information about her personal life, so Selby’s character is an estimation at best.)
And then, of course, there’s Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning performance as Aileen Wuornos. Anyone familiar with the Wuornos story has seen her most famous photos. Take it from me: the makeup department used every trick in the book to make Theron look like Wuornos’ double. It’s uncanny, on par with Rami Malek’s transformation for Bohemian Rhapsody, down to the false teeth that subtly alter her profile. She even shaved her eyebrows. But those cosmetic marvels are nothing, nothing compared to Theron’s performance itself. I recently watched Cate Blanchett in Tár and called that the greatest performance I had ever seen by a woman. I must now amend that statement. Theron completely sublimates her famously glamorous persona into a chaotic jumble of nervous speech patterns and a fake swagger and the rambling patter reminiscent of a junkie looking for her next fix. The only time she ever seems at peace is in the arms of her lover. This performance is even more remarkable considering how “non-flashy” it is compared to other movie killers like Hannibal Lecter or John Doe. Sure, she has her outbursts, but rather than feeling like hammy histrionics, they felt raw, like watching hidden camera footage of someone genuinely losing their shit because of some deep personal loss and not because they got the wrong size coffee at Starbucks. It’s a phenomenal performance.
Attention should also be paid to Christina Ricci’s performance as Selby. It’s easy to lose sight of Ricci in a film that clearly belongs to Theron, but she pitches her performance just right as another needy soul looking for a connection and all too willing to overlook (initially, at first) the red flags of a girlfriend who comes home in a different car every other night. Her home life may not have been as scarring as Aileen’s, but she will take any port in a storm offering relief from oppression.
I enjoyed Monster in almost the same way I enjoyed Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. These people are not the most sympathetic characters ever, or the most relatable, or even the most likable. But I see how their dysfunctional backgrounds brought them to their desolate situations step by step, and it makes me wonder whether I would have done anything differently in their situation. I’d like to think I wouldn’t turn to murder and/or drug use in my despair, but Monster made me realize there’s no way to know for sure unless I walk a mile in their shoes. The last lines spoken in Monster, which I won’t spoil here, lay out the kind of misery Aileen Wuornos seems to have faced at every stage in her life. Imagine how things might have turned out if she had just been given a chance.
QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC
Best line or memorable quote?
“‘All you need is love and to believe in yourself.’ Nice idea. It doesn’t exactly work out that way. But I guess it was better to hear a flat-out lie than to know the truth at 13.”
After watching this film, did you want to learn more about the true story? Why or why not?
I must be honest and say, no, I did not. I do not claim that Monster tells the 100% true story from beginning to end. It’s not a historical document. It’s a piece of entertainment that strives for truth at the expense of slavish dedication to factual accuracy, and I’m okay with that. I’m one of those people who believe JFK is a marvelous film, inaccurate though it may be, because it captures the feeling of what it was like during that timeframe. The same with Monster. I could watch however many documentaries on the life and death of Aileen Wuornos, and I can’t imagine any other piece of filmmaking approaching truth to any greater degree than this movie did.