KJ Doughton, 23 January 2004
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.
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
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
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.