Monster

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Making her feature film directing debut, Patty Jenkins swings for the fences with “Monster,” a fictionalized account of Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who shot and killed several of the men who paid her for sex.  Already the subject of a pair of documentaries by sensationalist Nick Broomfield (the second of which was co-directed by Joan Churchill), Wuornos gained international media attention following her arrest because female serial killers are so rare.  Encouraged by Broomfield, Wuornos claimed that the police allowed her to keep killing in order to be able to sell a juicy story to Hollywood.  Whether or not you believe her, there is something profoundly sad about the fact that Wuornos predicted correctly that her story would end up on the silver screen.

Charlize Theron, already honored with several major awards for her performance as Wuornos, turns in a stunning portrayal.  Physically transforming herself with a combination of significant weight gain, dark contact lenses, prosthetic dental appliances, and elaborate makeup to simulate freckled, damaged skin, Theron pulls off the near impossible: she doesn’t allow the disguise to get in the way of a phenomenal understanding of the subject.  In so many cases, actors who bury themselves under mountains of latex and spirit gum allow the costume to emote for them.  Instead of falling prey to this trap, Theron finds a balance between Wuornos’ desperation to remain optimistic in the face of unspeakable pain and her ability to commit murder after murder.

Jenkins frames her take on the Wuornos story around the relationship shared between Wuornos and Selby Wall (renamed for the film), a seemingly naïve young woman with whom Wuornos developed an intense bond.  Christina Ricci plays Wall, and while her performance is nowhere near as flashy or as dominant as Theron’s, she manages to walk the very fine line that separates Selby’s genuine gullibility from feigned ignorance of her partner’s horrible crimes.  Several major critics have not been kind to Ricci in their assessment of her work in “Monster,” but her acting is as strong as it has ever been, and she continues to demonstrate that she is one of the most interesting faces in cinema.

Because the movie’s acting has received the most critical attention, Jenkins’ direction can sometimes feel like an afterthought.  Despite its tabloid pedigree and the story’s residence on the true crime shelves of America’s bookstores, “Monster” is attentive and observant.  The details of its period setting – most obviously manifested in the thrift store t-shirts, acid-washed jeans, wallet chains, and pleather jackets favored by the characters – feel authentic, and the soundtrack is packed with several memorable tunes from the era, including work by INXS, Duran Duran, REO Speedwagon, and Journey.  Music fans will note the anachronistic inclusion of the haunting Chemical Brothers/Beth Orton collaboration “Where Do I Begin,” which feels slightly out of place.

While Jenkins remains resolutely focused on the Aileen/Selby relationship, the male characters are more often than not well-drawn and compelling, despite their brief screen time.  Solid performances are added to the mix by Bruce Dern, Scott Wilson (who appears in one of the movie’s most wrenching scenes), Lee Tergesen, and Pruitt Taylor Vince.  “Monster” belongs to Theron, however, and her riveting, forceful performance makes the film an absolute must-see.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/9/04. 

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