Director : Patty Jenkins
Screenplay : Patty Jenkins
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Charlize Theron (Aileen Wuornos), Christina Ricci (Selby Wall), Bruce Dern (Thomas), Lee Tergesen (Vincent Corey), Annie Corley (Donna), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Gene), Marco St. John (Evan), Marc Macaulay (Will), Scott Wilson (Horton), Rus Blackwell (Cop), Tim Ware (Chuck)
Like last year’s Dahmer, Patty Jenkins’ Monster is a daring film that attempts to find the humanity in a notorious serial killer. In this case, the film searches beneath the leather-thick skin of Aileen Wuornos, a highway prostitute who was convicted of murdering seven of her johns in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Jenkins doesn’t try to construct an easy psychological framework by delving deep into Wuornos’ damaged past, but instead gives us just a brief outline of where she came from before moving into the heart of the story, which is her relationship with another young woman.
Wuornos is played in a naked, stunning performance by Charlize Theron, who underwent a significant physical transformation to embody the character (including latex on her face to give her skin a leathery look, large dentures that make her entire face sag, and the gaining of some 30 pounds). Given Theron’s natural beauty (before becoming an actress, she was a model in South Africa), the physical change is what most people are talking about, but what sells the character is Theron’s carefully nuanced balance between Wuornos’ humanity and her capacity for the most vicious sorts of violence.
More than anything, Wuornos comes across as a pathetic human being desperate for some form of acceptance. Theron hits just the right notes in conveying how Wuornos used aggression and bluster to mask her deep insecurities and obvious ignorance. Wuornos’ own attorney called her a “a damaged, primitive child,” which is a painfully apt description. There is something primitive and frightening about her, yet she draws sympathy because that primitivism is clearly rooted in a childish insecurity that eventually turned violent.
Witness the sequence early in the film when Wuornos tries to “go straight” by getting a real job. It makes one cringe the way she goes into her interviews, pumped up with nothing more than her own silly expectations (her resume shows absolutely no work experience and a prior conviction, yet she thinks she get a job in a law firm). We feel pity for her because her ardent desire to live a “normal” life is constantly trumped by the hand she’s been dealt, but that pity quickly morphs to revulsion when she lashes out violently against those who would hold her back. That violence is always seething beneath the surface, and when it explodes, it is horrifying.
On the outside her entire life, Wuornos finally feels grounded in her relationship with Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a naïve young lesbian trying to break free from her family and form her own identity. Their emotional entanglement is deeply implicated in Wuornos’ crimes, even though Selby is never directly involved. Rather, it is Wuornos’ desperate desire to take care of her lover—to provide for her both financially and emotionally—that is presented as the driving reason for her multiple murders.
Humanizing a serial killer is a tall order to fill, particularly when the subject is someone who has been scrutinized, tried, and convicted in the court of public opinion as being sick, evil, or both (Wuornos’ trial was well covered by the media, and the tabloid sensationalism of it all was documented by Nick Broomfield in 1992’s Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer). Labels stick, and “serial killer” is one of the stickiest of all, conflating as it does virtually every notion we have in modern society of indefensible monstrosity.
Hence, the title of Monster is ironic—it’s how we want to see the serial killer, an easy-to-apply term that assuages society of any guilt in the killer’s creation. It’s a distancing device, a rhetorical maneuver designed to separate “them” from “us.” Jenkins’ film tries to break down that distance by showing us that monstrosity breeds more monstrosity; what we deem “evil” doesn’t spring from the earth fully formed, but is rather a product of trauma inflicted by both individuals and society at large. Fingers aren’t pointed except at those who would write off someone like Aileen Wuornos as evil, plain and simple, instead of grappling with the difficult interconnections between her sad humanity and her violence.
The dangerous line that Monster treads is between explaining monstrosity and excusing it. Time and again, the film comes precariously close to romanticizing Wuornos, excusing her actions as either the misguided attempts of a damaged woman trying for once to care for someone else or as a damaged woman’s justified vengeance against abusive men, a sort of vigilante rectification of dominant patriarchy and its subjugation of women. Wuornos was obviously the victim of abuse her whole life, and the film presents us with a litany of sleazy male characters who literally wear the stamp “Deserving of death” on their foreheads.
Yet, Jenkins doesn’t let the film slide down that road, as she presents at least one of Wuornos’ victims as a decent, caring person who simply made the mistake of picking her up. This is the most disturbing death in the film because it pulls any justification out from under Wuornos; even doing it for the sake of love can’t justify the cruelty she shows. But, because she herself was a victim of cruelty her entire life, the film strengthens its central point that monstrosity begets monstrosity. If Aileen Wuornos was, indeed, a monster, it was only because she was made into one by others.
Copyright © 2004 James Kendrick