“I’m one who seriously hates human life and would kill again.”
Aileen Wuornos never had a chance. All the arguments of creating fate and making good choices in the midst of bad situations wither in the face of Wuornos’ awful circumstances. Her life started out bad and got worse. Born to a 15-year-old mother and a child molester father, she was raised by abusive, alcoholic grandparents. Her grandfather beat her regularly; she got pregnant at 13; she and her brother were farmed out to foster care; she was kicked out of the house she was 15. She became a prostitute to support herself. Prostitution made her feel trapped and angry, and it taught her to hate.
Patty Jenkins’ morally complex “Monster” sticks with this line of thinking about Wuornos, the female serial killer who murdered seven men in Florida from 1989-90. Before her Death Row execution in 2002, Wuornos changed her story so many times — the johns raped her and she shot them in self-defense; she killed because she wanted to — it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. So Jenkins elects to paint a decidedly sympathetic portrait of a serial killer that predates Showtime’s series “Dexter.” Charlize Theron, camouflaged in dumpy clothes and transformed by make-up, goes along with this view. In a truly outstanding performance, she gives humanity to the woman painted as a monster and falsely christened the “first female serial killer.” Theron, in fact, is so good that we never think to sneer at the actress for going ugly to win an Oscar. Purely on the strength of her acting she earns all the praise. She also rewards the leap of faith required to believe an actress so comely could become a woman so homely and beaten-down. Theron is a revelation.
It’s safer to call “Monster” a movie inspired by true events than a biopic, since Wuornos’ history is so malleable. She changed her stories with such frequency that even she couldn’t keep them straight. Jenkins provides a bit of back story but zeroes in primarily on Aileen’s romantic relationship with Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), reminiscent of the real Wuornos’ partnership with Tyria Moore. Down to her last $5, Aileen strikes a deal with God: She’ll spend the cash and then commit suicide. At a gay bar, she meets young Selby, who’s eager for companionship. Despite a rocky beginning, the two form a fragile friendship that turns into a tentative, then fiercely codependent romance. Selby wants Aileen to whisk her away from her judgmental aunt (Annie Corley) and into a life of freedom. But that sort of life takes money, and Aileen has to hook to get it. After one john (Vincent Corey) beats, rapes and tortures Aileen, she manages to untie her hands and shoot him. The murder is cathartic; she howls in pain and anger, the screams of a wounded animal. The incident unhinges her, unleashes the rage and bitterness she’s swallowed since childhood. And so the transformation from prey to predator begins. She kills more johns, including an undercover cop (Marco St. John) and a kind man (Scott Wilson) who only wants to help her. But by that final murder, Aileen is beyond kindness, help. She can’t go back.
Nearly all of the characters in “Monster” are secondary to Theron and Ricci, who perfectly capture the nuances of a dangerously unstable relationship. Bruce Dern has a small role as Aileen’s only friend, Thomas, a Vietnam vet who understands her alienation. Ricci does a fine job with a role that demands she play a naïve, needy teen who willfully blinds herself to Aileen’s reality. Mostly “Monster” is a showcase for Theron’s gifts as a serious actress willing to go far outside herself for a part. Aileen Wuornos is about as far from Theron as it’s possible to get, yet Theron’s performance wholly fascinates and absorbs us. Rather than seeming like a pretty girl in ugly clothes, she embodies Aileen completely. Theron gives Aileen the voice she never felt she had, and she makes us feel the abject hopelessness and desperation of Aileen’s life. Through Theron, we understand how the simple act of living in such a miserable reality can bankrupt the soul.