Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 109 minutes
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Aileen “Lee” Wuornos was taken into custody on January 8, 1991 for the murder of six men along the Florida highways. Labeled as “America’s first female serial killer,” Wuornos became notorious for flagging down cars while hitchhiking, offering sex for money, and then robbing or executing her victims. But why did she do it? And was she really a man-hater? Was she really a ‘monster?’ In Patty Jenkins’ directorial debut, Charlize Theron undergoes a monstrous transformation to portray Wuornos with unflinching realism and bitterness. Unglamorous and provocative, both their efforts pay off as “Monster” takes an unbiased and compelling look at the anatomy of a natural born serial killer.
The film opens along a stretch of the Florida highway. In the pouring rain, underneath an interstate bridge, we first encounter Aileen Wuornos. She has only five dollars left and a pistol. And she prays that God will help her put those dollars to good use or she will end up taking her own life. Looking for one last drink, she stumbles into a lesbian bar and is greeted by Selby, an 18 year old in desperate need of someone to talk to. Selby has been sent to live with religious relatives in the hopes that she will be talked out of lesbianism. Out of necessity, an unlikely partnership forms. Although Aileen does not consider herself a lesbian, she finds instant friendship with Selby.
Because Selby’s relatives do not accept her lesbianism, Selby feels compelled to leave. And Lee convinces her to travel and party on the road. With little money and very few ways to support one another, Aileen searches feverishly for a respectable job. But nothing works out. Feeling responsible for Selby, Aileen turns back to hooking. On what was supposed to be a routine job, Aileen’s john beats and rapes her almost to death. In an act of self-defense, Aileen shoots and kills the man, wrapping his body in carpet and taking his money along with the car.
Of course, the money lasts only a little while before the two find themselves in the same position, wanting a normal life and needing the simple necessities like food and shelter. Aileen hits the highways again, but this time, something is different. When she is picked up by her new john, she begins to despise the vulgarity and despicable nature of her clientele. Without provocation, she kills the man, setting off a downward spiral and a twisted ritual until her past demons start to catch up with her.
Director and writer, Patty Jenkins brings a difficult subject to life in a hard-edged drama about one of America’s most unique serial killers. Though not really the first female serial killer, Wuornos broke the FBI stereotype in that her crimes were not of passion or revenge. The motivation for these crimes was a lot different. It wasn’t just men that she hated; it was people in general. And this film captures that uncannily. It’s not meant to make you feel sympathetic toward Aileen or to distort the seriousness of her offenses, but to show you a flawed woman with one last ditch effort to redeem herself. Throughout the film, she has several turning points that could save her, those that interject and offer her a way out. But regretfully, her life is filled with such belligerence and anger for any advice to stick.
In October 2002, Aileen Wuornos was executed by lethal injection after confessing to the murder of seven men along the Florida highways, although she was only convicted of six. Though many men and women came into her life, it was only one woman with whom she really felt a connection or emotional bond – Selby. And it wasn’t so much a physical attraction, but more or less a need to nurture, a need to act motherly. Yet in the end, her good intentions could not overcome the bad habits and abrasive behavior that made her so repellent. And she sealed her doom by eventually destroying the one relationship that mattered most.
Charlize Theron is one of the most beautiful and classy actresses in Hollywood today. In fact, with her long legs and elegant demeanor, she’s a throw back to the likes of Grace Kelly. But all of that is irrelevant in “Monster” because what is on display is not her looks, but her talent. In the film, Theron embodies the mannerisms, the verbalisms, and the mood of Aileen Wuornos in a way that is so realistic, so gritty, and so believable that you’ll completely forget that this is the same girl from “The Italian Job” or “The Astronaut’s Wife.” Much of the appearance should be credited to Toni G., who developed the leather like skin prosthetics to give Theron freckles and a weathered look. It is then ironic that Theron’s Lee is uncomfortable in her own skin, shifting her weight around, hunching over, and awkwardly slouching off of bar stools. But it’s not the skin that does the talking. It’s Theron. And she gives her best performance, perhaps one of the best of the year, exuding empathy, integrity, and resolve all at once.
Cast opposite of Theron in the supporting role of Selby is Christina Ricci. Ricci plays Selby as a simpleton caught in the web of Waurnos’ wrongdoings. She aspires to Lee’s confidence and cockiness while maintaining innocence. But is she really in love? And is she really that naïve about Lee’s murderous activities? The real conspirator in Waurnos’ life was a 24 year old red headed adult named Tyria Moore, who was employed as a motel maid until deciding to join Lee. But in the film, Selby is portrayed as more of a child, a child with a broken arm who cannot support herself. Though not entirely accurate, Ricci’s performance is downplayed considerably to emphasize the maternal relationship between the two characters.
In transitioning a real life story to film, certain liberties have to be taken to accelerate or explain things in two hours. But in this case, I feel the background information is lacking. We don’t really get to know how Lee became the person she is at the beginning of the film. We don’t know why she wants to commit suicide. And we don’t know why she is homeless. Omitted from the film are these highly significant details: Lee’s father was a child molester and psychopath who committed suicide when Lee was at an early age. She was then abandoned along with her brother and eventually adopted by her maternal grandparents. Her maternal grandfather, of which, succumbed to cancer and her maternal grandmother took her own life. Pregnant at the age of 14, Lee put her baby boy up for adoption. She then was married a short while before turning to hitchhiking and prostitution. Although these tragic instances seem like a lot to bare, they are significant in pointing to the woman we get to know through the film and they would have bridged the gap in understanding her motives.
“Monster” is a film that you can appreciate, but it’s also one that may be difficult to watch. Because it is so course, because it is so authentic, and because the characters are so real, you feel a closeness to Lee that may be uncomfortable. And you feel a sense of pity for someone who has never had anyone pay her much attention. After sitting on death row for nearly a decade, Wuornos accelerated her own execution by voicing her final wish. And sadly, her life ended exactly where it began – alone and without love.
Posted on February 4, 2004 in Reviews by Mark Sells
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- AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER
- “CALENDAR GIRLS” OPENS AFI TONIGHT!
- LOVE AND THE MONSTER
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