Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 109 minutes
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In the astonishingly nifty new picture from writer-director Patty Jenkins, Charlize Theron undergoes a couple of extreme makeovers: There is, of course, the metamorphosis of the 28 year old starlet into the hulking human trainwreck that was Aileen Wuornos, the Florida prostitute executed in 2002 for the murder of seven men. From a technical standpoint, this physical transformation is no mean feat.
It pales in comparison, however, to Theron’s artistic transformation. With a single performance she has made the leap from B movie baby doll to serious actress and snagged a Golden Globe in the process. I don’t think a better performance was given last year. And that was a year in which Sean Penn gave two great ones.
Monster chronicles the weeks prior to Wuornos’ arrest, a period during which the troubled woman in essence summoned the strength to take one last shot at a happy normal life. As the film opens, we find her under an overpass cradling a long-barrelled pistol and preparing to put an end to an existence defined from the beginning by emotional and physical abuse. Suddenly she’s distracted by the realization that she has a five dollar bill in her pocket. Figuring it would be a shame to let it go to waste, Theron makes her way to the nearest bar and, ordering a glass of its cheapest beer, makes a request of the almighty: If anything good is ever going to be sent her way, let it arrive before this money runs out.
For a minute there the world seems a place in which such prayers are not only heard but actually answered. The bar, as it turns out, is a gay bar and watching her from across the room is a young woman who is about to change her life.
Christina Ricci costars as Selby Wall, an 18-year-old living in her aunt’s guest house after being banished by her father for experimenting with lesbianism. Wall offers to buy Wuornos a drink, an act which is significant both because it results in the pair making a sort of love connection and because it is the last time we will ever see the older woman given anything by the younger one.
As Jenkins sees it, the dynamic between the two is key to an understanding of Wuornos and what she did next. Theron does a terrific job of suggesting the range of feelings, especially the touching sense of hope, the relationship inspired in this beaten down woman. After spending most of her life in a vicious cycle which had men either rejecting her or paying for her, having what everybody else seemed to have-someone to love and love you back-was like winning the lottery. Theron emanates a moving mixture of happiness, pride and surprise when she swaggers into another bar a few nights later, a cigarette in one hand, her other arm around Ricci, and announces to no one in particular “This here’s my girlfriend.” Clearly it’s as though the whole world has been a club that’s kept her out and finally she’s invited in.
In the couple’s conception of a normal relationship, one partner provides and the other is provided for. Wuornos was eager to take on the role of provider and that was her undoing because, while she evidently wanted with all her heart to go straight, the only way she knew how to make a living was by hooking. There’s a tragicomic strain that runs through Monster right up to the end and one of the film’s most unforgettable moments comes when Theron puts on her interpretation of a business outfit and goes job-hunting. “I’m really good with people,” she beams cluelessly to one interviewer. Another gets a taste of her wrath when he suggests she doesn’t have the right to decide so late in the game she wants what everybody else has been working all their lives to get.
He gets off easy though compared with her next few business contacts. The first guy she killed and robbed after returning to prostitution had it coming. He raped and brutalized her. The film suggests he may even have intended to kill her. Who really knows why she did the same to the others? Jenkins suggests doing so satisfied a couple of needs: money and payback for a lifetime of mistreatment by men. In other words, given that her relationship with Wall was going to last only as long as she continued to bring home the bucks, she may have done it for love as much as she did it for hate.
Who knows, had Wall gotten off her butt and taken a job at Burger King instead of letting Wuornos do what she did and then ratting on her, things might have had a happier ending. She may not have spilled a drop of blood but she’s as much a monster as Wuornos if you ask me. Maybe more of one. And Ricci’s performance is every bit as slyly masterful as Theron’s.
Jenkins’ film ranks as one of the past year’s very best. Like In Cold Blood, The Onion Field and Dead Man Walking before it, her picture provides a mesmerizing portrait of the human side of evil. It seems to me that no one has done this more affectingly than Jenkins & Co do it here. Certainly no one has in the case of a criminal who happened to be female. Monster doesn’t for a minute suggest that what Wuornos did wasn’t repellent. Rather it reminds us that there was beauty somewhere in the soul of this beast and asks us to wonder what might have become of her had someone better than Selby Wall gotten a glimpse of it first.
Posted on February 4, 2004 in Reviews by Rick Kisonak
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