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Review: “Monster” (2003)

“I’m one who seriously hates human life and would kill again.”
~~Aileen Wuornos

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.

Grade: A-

Review: “Come Early Morning” (2006)

Come_Early_MorningThere are movies where everything happens, movies where nothing really happens and movies where everything happens because nothing really happens. Joey Lauren Adams’ quietly observant “Come Early Morning” belongs to this third group, a cinematic subset that includes such underappreciated gems as “The Station Agent” or “Trees Lounge.” But the lack of action in “Come Early Morning” isn’t laziness. No, it’s more of a call to action. Adams asks us to pay closer attention, to look harder and longer and unearth the meaning in the thousands of little moments. The emotional payoff is small and hard-won but satisfying nonetheless.

Of course, Ashley Judd’s richly textured turn as Lucy Fowler, a 30-something Little Rock contractor who spends most mornings recovering from the night before, feels like reward enough. Judd is a curiosity, an actress with an innate shyness, a bruised emotional toughness, that no agent knows how to handle. Adams does, though, and it’s a relief to see a director who trusts Judd to know herself and find her own way. She does just that with Lucy, showing us a brutal cynic who uses alcohol and semi-anonymous sex to blunt her loneliness and pass the time. Lucy’s hardness frightens most people, including her more hopeful roommate (Laura Prepon) and her mute, closed-off father Lowell (Scott Wilson, never better). But it doesn’t scare the new-in-town Cal (Jeffrey Donovan, an actor with rather impressive range) as much as intrigue him, so he forges a tentative bond with Lucy, who put her heart on lockdown years before.

And thus ends the action at the center of “Come Early Morning.” But that’s hardly where the movie ends. Remember those “little moments”? They’re scattered about with some care, and every one of them delivers emotional punch. Take the moment when Lucy, stone sober, squirms in discomfort while Cal kisses her. He asks her: “When’s the last time you kissed somebody sober?” She can’t remember, but the unease on her face in this scene gives us the answer. Lucy has no concept of sex or affection without alcohol, so sober vulnerability is alien to her. So, too, is the idea of human connection in general. There’s a heart-breaking scene where Lucy invites herself along to her father’s “holy roller” church. Wilson is amazing in this scene, playing tight-lipped but somehow radiating surprise and the tiniest bit of pleasure. Lucy’s taking a risk here, a big one, and Judd makes us feel her fear, her anger and her desperation. It seems like a throwaway, but what heft it has.

But Judd does that with most of her scenes in “Come Early Morning,” which offers a beautifully understated look at Southern life that doesn’t degenerate into a mess of lazy stereotypes. (Judd’s accent? It’s real; only a born Southerner could tell the difference.) Her face, eyes and body language make Lucy seem less like a woman, more like a scared child fighting like hell to keep from growing up. In a way, that’s exactly what Lucy is. She’s someone who made up her mind that people, particularly men, were rotten and untrustworthy years ago, and she’s too stubborn to change her mind because that would uproot her world. Only an actress like Judd could communicate how subtly but surely a woman like this could begin to embrace change. And maybe only a director as patient as Joey Lauren Adams could draw out that kind of performance. It’s the kind of rare, intuitive teamwork that signals the birth of one career and the rebirth of another.

Grade: A-