Charlize Theron's Monster is No Beauty, But She's No Beast Either
If you made a list of the most tiresome tropes in Hollywood, serial killers and the Oscar-worthy transformation would have to rank near the top. Over the past decade or so, serial killers have supplanted almost every other movie monster to the point of parody, to the point where you would ordinarily expect a film about renowned female serial killer Aileen Wuornos--especially one titled Monster--to head straight to a single low shelf on the new-release wall at Blockbuster. Monster is headed to your local multiplex, however, thanks to A-list star Charlize Theron, who co-produced the film and obliterated her own beauty to play the infamous murderer/prostitute herself. It is a move that reeks of the kind of anti-vanity Hollywood loves--make yourself hideous and pathetic in a "serious" film and you can swan down the red carpet in couture on your way to your date with a statuette.
That's the cynical view. But Monster is, oddly enough, not a cynical film, and it appears not to have been made by cynical people. (In some ways, it may not be cynical enough.) See, Theron and writer/director Patty Jenkins (in her feature debut) didn't make a film about a serial killer--they made a film about a human being, albeit one irreparably twisted by a hard life. And Theron may win awards for her uncanny transformation, but her performance deserves them.
As Monster makes clear, Aileen Wuornos was damaged goods, a gruesome pileup of bad social and personal pathologies. A highway-side hooker since puberty, Theron's "Lee" is so far outside the normal bounds of human contact that when waifish Selby Wall (Christina Ricci) first chats her up at a Florida lesbian bar, she all but snarls.
Selby has a cast on her arm, a none-too-subtle telegraph of her own damage. A baby dyke on the outs with her God-fearing family, she latches on to Lee. The older woman sizes her new friend up like a mark and settles in to soak up some free beer until Selby's wide-eyed attention cracks open her sun-baked crust and Lee's loneliness and desperation begin to seep out. By the time their lips meet--while couple-skating in a roller rink to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," no less--Lee, and the audience, are jelly.
Selby gives Lee a glimpse of hope, but Lee gets picked up and brutalized by a nightmare john (Oz's Lee Tergesen), who she winds up killing. Scared off the streets, too scarred for sex, even with Selby, Lee makes a futile attempt to go straight and encounters a new kind of brutalization while looking for a real job. So she hits the road again, looking for tricks, but also looking for any excuse to blow her dates away and take their cash and cars. About the time Selby wakes up to what is happening, Lee realizes what she has become and where she is headed.
Theron's physical transformation is remarkable--she is literally unrecognizable, except in a few well-suited moments when her good bone structure flickers behind her character's hardened veneer like the sun behind scudding overcast skies. But that's the easy part; the hard part is subsuming actorliness into the way Lee walks, the way she jerks her head back and looks down her nose defiantly, the jauntiness of her manic new happiness with Selby, and the way that spring in her step seems to wobble, unfamiliar, like sea legs not yet gained. Lee is a prodigious liar, but Theron tips her cards just enough to reveal the force behind the falsehoods--habit, boredom, anger, fear, despair, love. When Lee confides that she always wanted to be president of the United States, with all the innocence of a child who never got to grow up, it breaks your heart. Theron is in nearly every scene and there are no seams visible.
Theron's performance is matched and bolstered by Jenkins', whose script and unobtrusive direction earn Lee the viewer's empathy but never excuse her actions. Monster has all the makings of a feminist screed: From a childhood black eye glimpsed in passing to her debased existence as a sump for male desire, Lee is painted as a victim; except for a gentle old drunk (Bruce Dern), who passes for her only friend, men seem to exist only as she encounters them in the front seat of their cars--johns all. It's clear that her murders are motivated by more than the money she needs to keep Selby settled, that she is lashing out against a lifetime of use and abuse. But she spares a gentle john (Pruitt Taylor Vince) out of unexpected compassion, and as her spree draws to a close she finds herself unmistakably in the wrong, with her gun to the head of man who wants only to help (Scott Wilson), avenging nothing, to her evident horror.
Ricci's performance as Selby (based on Wuornos' real-life girlfriend, Tyria Moore) can't help but suffer in comparison to Theron's, but she is note-perfect as the self-absorbed teen who pins her fate to an older lover who is, in her own unlikely way, just as starry and unrealistic about life and love. (One significant misstep: Jenkins scores a love scene between Lee and Selby to Tommy James' "Crimson and Clover," skewing the clinch away from the innocence that underlies it and toward an icky '70s porn vibe.) When it all goes bad, it's hard to blame Lee alone.
Of course, Jenkins' film asks the viewer to sympathize with some pretty unsympathetic people--an oblivious overgrown kid, a killer with some conscience but ultimately no remorse, and the parade of not-so-innocent men she snuffs. At no point does the film offer a possibility of a happy ending for Wuornos, but it asks at every turn if she deserves her fate any more than her victims did. Mistakes, even tragic ones, are human, which is the whole point.