Patty Jenkins’ “Monster” shines its headlights onto the gruesome wreckage that piles up when romantic, youthful ideals are shattered by desperation and despair. Before leaving a trail of seven bodies in her wake, real-life Florida man-killer Aileen Wuornos ached to be discovered by Hollywood. “I always wanted to be in the movies,” she confesses as a slide-show of her baby pictures flickers across the screen to introduce the film. “Who would discover me?”
It’s ironic that this grungy, bloated poster child for failure, nourished only by immature dreams of fame, is portrayed in “Monster” by Charlize Theron, the very real embodiment of all that Wuornos hoped to be. In films including “Cider House Rules” and “The Devil’s Advocate,” the genetic perfection of Theron’s delicate cheekbones and striking, sultry eyes is distracting.
No doubt aware of this, the actress uses “Monster” as an antidote to her own attractiveness. This time, the woman onscreen is a meaty aggressor, looking grizzled and leonine in her bulging forehead, thinning hair, and arrowhead teeth. The whole package comes wrapped in tattered jeans, a black biker’s tank top, and a pack of Marlboros. It’s the gnarliest, most convincing reverse-makeover since Robert DeNiro’s cellulite-enhanced turn as Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull.”
To Theron’s credit, the transformation is much more than prosthetics and makeup. The lead character in “Monster” walks with a defensive, hip-swaying swagger. She treats sex like as a businesslike habit, as impersonal as brushing one’s teeth (“I’ll blow you if you want,” she nonchalantly offers a landlord after failing to get the rent in on time). Her unstable affect jumps from bubbly dreamer to loose cannon in three seconds. There’s a real performance here.
Like so many star-struck young women drawn like moths to the flames of celebrity wealth and fame, Wuornos’ wings were scorched by a series of violations. Raped by a family friend at age eight, the golden-haired child was then beaten by her father after reporting the offense. Such abuse led young Wuornos to prostitution by age thirteen.
“Monster” begins several years later, as Wuornos sits beneath a freeway overpass with gun in hand. She’s considering suicide, but not before one last beer. After entering a gay bar, the rain-soaked hooker spots an impish young lesbian named Selby (Christina Ricci), and her life is changed forever.
Selby is the physical antithesis of Wuornos. Her hair is goth-black, her manner giddy and flirtatious. An injured arm is covered in plaster. But both women are immature dreamers, yearning to be rescued from their unhappy lots in life. Living with fundamentalist family friends that try to “cure” her lesbian leanings, Selby searches for empathy. Long since warped into damaged goods by a lifetime of low expectations and systematic degradations, Wuornos’ quest is for any shred of acceptance or love she can dredge up. Shaping their respective shards of hope into a defensive shield against the outside world, Selby and Wuornos become lovers.
“Monster” is no fairy tale, however, and there are no “happily ever afters” for this volatile duo. To pay the bills on a string of ramshackle hotel rooms they inhabit, Wuornos returns to what she knows best, picking up johns from nearby freeways. One customer, an oily, flask-carrying hayseed, shackles his date and beats her nearly to death. It’s a sickening spectacle, and when Aileen reaches for a gun and blows the attacker away, we can empathize completely. Like a howling coyote or some possessed banshee, the avenging assailant celebrates her kill with a triumphant scream. It’s chilling.
Fueled by her contempt for such vicious johns while astonished at how easily it is to take a life, Theron’s unemployable, unlikable, uneducated subject begins killing her customers and lifting their wallets. It’s a quick fix for fast cash, allowing she and Selby to survive. After all, how valuable is human life, really? “People kill each other every day,” Aileen reasons. “For politics. For religion. For all kinds of reasons.”
Predictably, such serial slaughter comes crashing to an end, as this angry, imbalanced shooter goes to trial for her misdeeds. After spending over a decade of infamy festering on Death Row, Wuornos was executed by the State of Florida in 2002. Dubbed “America’s First Female Serial Killer,” Wuornos also became the subject of two disturbing documentaries directed by Nick Broomfield.
In Broomfield’s films, it was hard to identify with his subject, a dim opportunist who brazenly flaunted her behind-bars fame. With “Monster,” however, it’s a different story. Has another film ever conveyed the urgent desperation of a mind on the brink of ruin with such authenticity? We watch Theron’s prostitute wander through employment agencies, being asked, “Do you have any experience,” and coldly denied a shot at “straight” income. Then again, when this volatile personality throws her resume in a prospective employer’s face, cursing like a particularly profane sailor, our sympathy is challenged. It’s a tribute to Theron’s range that we can understand Wuornos’ choices, even as we wince at her poor judgment.
The new millenium has given us a startling number of films dealing with the damaging cycle of human violence. “Mystic River,” “In the Bedroom,” and “City of God” are but three examinations of how murder and abuse result in waves of dysfunction and suffering that spread like a disease, from generation to generation. Does the world need another example of this unpleasant truth? Perhaps not. But “Monster” creates an even more gripping effect, by explaining a killer’s actions and letting us vicariously crawl beneath her blotchy skin. For the millions that pick up the newspaper each night and ask, “How could someone do such a thing,” “Monster” provides some answers.