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Monster. 2003. Directed & Written by Patty Jenkins.
Starring Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen, Annie Corley, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Marco St. John, Marc Macaulay, Scott Wilson, Rus Blackwell, Tim Ware, Stephan Jones, Brett Rice, Kaitlin Riley, & Cree Ivey. Media 8 Entertainment/Newmarket Films/DEJ Productions.
Rated 18A. 109 minutes.
For those that don’t know the entire story, Aileen Wuornos was indeed a serial killer. She murdered men. She was a prostitute, one that had been abused, supposedly raped, tortured, and one who took emancipation from a life of sex as business into her own hands when there was nowhere else to turn. And that was the ultimate problem concerning Aileen’s long, tumultuous life. Starting from an early age she was frequently beaten, while naked, by her adoptive father. At the age of fourteen she got pregnant, later putting the boy up for adoption in 1971. She was actually married to a multimillionaire by age twenty, which later ended in a restraining order against her and an annulment. This was also around the time Lee started getting arrested, charged with assault and battery, among other things. When she finally wound up in Daytona, drinking in a gay bar, she met Tyria Moore who’d become the one big love of her life. It was in Daytona the trail of bodies behind Aileen – affectionately known as Lee to those close to her – started piling up.
And this is where director-writer Patty Jenkins’ Monster comes in.
Wuornos, by all accounts, had trouble with the truth. Most of all after her arrest in 1991. What Jenkins does is examine Wuornos in those days after meeting Moore – here named Selby – and the steady decline of her mental state from the time of her first murder onward. In a realistic style alongside a great script, Jenkins uses the fascinatingly honest, brutally true-to-life performance of Charlize Theron as the centerpiece of a discussion about everything from murder to prostitution, to how we judge prostitutes when they say they’ve been sexually assaulted, love, as well as so many other themes in between. This movie is a great film from the early 2000s containing one of the single best performances ever seen in the history of cinema.
There’s some great editing in this film. When Selby and Aileen first stay together in the hotel, after she’s murdered her first victim, things are so light and lovely, which then switches quickly into the stone cold realities of this woman’s life: we cut fast to Aileen in her stolen car, spraying down the windshield and wiping off any of the last bloody remnants inside to make sure it’s not a rolling DNA lab. This is one of the most evident points where we see the division in Aileen’s life, between the woman she wants to be and the woman she is/has become. An instance of when good editing and writing come together to create a sorrowful look into the inner life of a character, especially heart wrenching due to the fact Aileen is a serial killer, as well as partly a very tragic case.
What is part serial killer picture is also part indictment of our general society, which chews people like Aileen Wuornos up and spits them out. Aside from her alleged rape (I only say alleged because Aileen was the only person left on Earth who knew the truth for sure about that particular event), one of the first truly sad scenes is the montage sequence where Aileen heads out looking for a job. First just seeing her dressed in a nice little outfit while looking terrifyingly rough is semi-comical, which might explain Jenkins once telling an interviewer the film was meant to be played as a lighthearted comedy with bits of the murders tossed in amongst everything else. Secondly, when Aileen then goes on to a law office where she hopes to get a secretarial job, the treatment she receives is downright appalling. Then when she freaks out, it’s as if she is being the unreasonable one, but the man provoked her into that behaviour, and furthermore we continue to see how the system is not designed for people like Aileen. One poignantly tragic moment is when Selby is being chastised about Aileen by her aunt, who basically says
Basically, a long and ruined life led Aileen to where she ended up. Having been used and abused most of her lifetime she wound up doing all she was ever conditioned to do: prostitute herself and sell her body. The saddest part to me is that one way or another, Aileen was likely to become a killer. Because if she didn’t willingly start killing men that she felt were assaulting or raping her then there’s still a high probability she would’ve likely, at some point in life, contracted HIV and spread it. Aileen wasn’t some high class escort, she lived on the street going from one situation to the next in desperation, so there’s a huge chance HIV would’ve come along. But the biggest, saddest irony lies in the fact that if Aileen was telling the truth about the original john she killed in the beginning, it’s likely this rape and assault which pushed her into killing the others, even if they never assaulted her themselves. Not to excuse her crimes, they are horrific and inexcusable. It just begs attention paid to the systemic abuse of low class prostitutes that are living dangerous lives on the fringe of society, no protection, barely any mind paid to their situations and their struggles. Eventually the levee has to break, somehow, somewhere down the line. Aileen represents one of the most perfect cases of a woman pushed too far. People want to act like a prostitute gets what she deserves, whatever that means, as if selling her body to survive and get through life effectively relegates her to a life of rape, torture, and all around terror. As if she asked for that. But Aileen asked for none of the life she was given. The title of this film accurately describes Wuornos, yet it has more than just the surface meaning that she is a monstrous person. This title refers further to the monster which society made her, the serial killing creature into which society molded her.
Obviously the most impressive piece of Monster is Theron. Not just the physical transformation, though that is perfect. She not only takes on the physical appearance of Wuornos, she also gets the mannerisms and the phrasing, everything, so dead on correct. If you’ve ever watched any of the documentary material on Aileen, specifically the films made by Nick Broomfield, you’ll find it undeniable how accurate Theron portrays this woman, from top the bottom. Emotionally, this role is heavy, and all the various traumas of Aileen are not easy to illustrate onscreen. Theron proves that empathy reigns supreme, as she crawls inside the skin of this woman, whose story is sad but still altogether scary to relate to. We do, though. We relate in the most unnerving of ways, and that isn’t solely on the writing by Jenkins, fleshing out many important moments in the later stages of Aileen’s days. Theron opens the door to that empathetic viewing, which ultimately makes Monster one of the more compelling films to look at a true story about a serial killer. Yes, there are graphic moments. Even those are tactfully written and handled with solid directorial choices on Jenkins’ part.
With Theron’s powerhouse acting talent this movie doesn’t have to linger totally on the murder, the blood, the rape, none of that. Instead those lie on the peripherals of the film, adding their touches lightly, as Jenkins chooses to focus on the emotional, sentimental aspects of Aileen’s life. In doing so, Theron is able to show off her skills, and the movie reaches a height many other biographical films concerning the hideous legacy of serial murderers often can’t manage to attain. This is a 5-star masterpiece of a crime film. Even better, it’s based in real life, the melodrama is almost non-existent. Not only is Monster one of the best films in the past 16 years, it is an excellent movie period. And Theron’s performance as Wuornos will forever go down in history as one of the greatest. She deserved and still deserves all the accolades heaped upon her for this role because it is tremendous. To make people care about someone who has killed, a bunch of people, is truly remarkable, and to bring forward some of the issues in this film is brave on both the part of Theron and writer-director Jenkins. Truly a phenomenal work of cinema.