About a year or so ago, Movieline magazine called Charlize Theron the actor “most in need of giving one great performance instead of twenty good ones.” I wonder if she read that. Whether intentionally or not, Theron has clearly taken them up on the challenge. Her work in Monster ranks as one of the most astonishing combinations of acting skill and physical transformation ever. We’re talking DeNiro in Raging Bull here. I’ve always felt there were two types of performances: the one where the actor plays the role and the one where the actor becomes the character. Theron does the latter.
In the film, she plays Aileen Wuornos, a real-life woman who was executed on death row a few years back. The story takes place in the 1980’s, and when we first meet Aileen, she is depressed, thinking about suicide. Instead, she wanders into a bar for a few drinks. A young woman named Selby (Christina Ricci) approaches her. Selby is a lesbian, rejected by her family and alone in the world. All she wants to do is talk to someone for an evening. She and Aileen begin a conversation and find that they click with one another. They make arrangements to spend more time together. Aileen is not gay, but she nevertheless finds herself attracted to Selby. This is the first person in her life who ever thought she was beautiful or special. They share their first kiss on the floor of a roller skating rink as the old Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’” plays.
Soon, Selby and Aileen are inseparable. The relationship is liberating for both of them. Aileen becomes empowered to leave prostitution behind for good, especially after being brutally beaten and sodomized by a john. (She escapes and shoots him in self-defense.) Selby – who doesn’t know the extent of what happened - doesn’t want her to quit. She likes the money Aileen brings in. There’s also a subtle suggestion that she’s turned on by it. Aileen continues to hook, but there’s a difference. She suddenly feels that every man who picks her up is out to exploit or harm her in some way. Now that there’s someone in the world who genuinely cares for her, the very act of a man picking her up seems a major offense. Almost preemptively, Aileen starts killing her johns.
This is the interesting thing about Monster. Aileen Wuornos is often referred to as “the first female serial killer.” While Monster certainly doesn’t condone her actions, it does make a credible case that the label might not be entirely appropriate. As Wuornos (the character) says in the film, “people don’t understand circumstance.” Writer-director Patty Jenkins argues that Wuornos was not, in fact, a monster - not like, say, Charles Manson. Instead, she killed because she felt exploited by men. She’d been beaten, brutalized, and even sodomized by her johns so many times that she felt any man was potentially out to abuse her; that threat became unbearable once she found the purity of a relationship with someone who cared about her. Who knows if this was really the case or not, but for the film it makes an interesting hypothesis. The Aileen we come to know doesn’t set out to kill anyone; her damaged psyche puts her in a constant “fight or flight” mode. She chooses to fight.
The most truly amazing thing about this movie, as you have probably heard, is the knockout performance from Charlize Theron. The actress gained weight, used makeup techniques, and wore contacts and false teeth to transform into Wuornos. I will admit that I’ve always found Theron to be an incredibly beautiful woman. Almost magically, she has been stripped of that beauty to the point of being virtually unrecognizable. Moreover, the actress adopts speech patterns and body language that perfectly convey the effects of the character’s hard-knock life. She truly becomes this lost soul, looking for love and acceptance in a world that is overtly hostile to her. I honestly believe that people will be talking about this performance for decades to come. It is one against which other performances will be judged.
Theron is rightfully getting a lot of attention for her work, but I want to mention the work of Christina Ricci as well. Ricci reminded me a lot of Tom Cruise in Rain Man. Her part is less showy, less central, yet absolutely critical to the emotional impact of the story. She plays Selby as a sad, lonely girl who has also been shunned. Her homosexuality offends her family, causing them to treat her as an embarrassment. She responds to similar wounded qualities in Aileen. In order for you to believe the film’s take on Aileen’s killings, you have to also believe Ricci’s performance as much as you have to believe in Theron’s. I cannot believe that she wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar (she should have won!). There is a moment in the last few minutes of the movie where Selby cries on the phone to Aileen. As the camera pans around, we understand that she’s crying on several different levels. Ricci is astonishing in the scene.
Astonishing is also the right word to use for the film as a whole. It has a lot of humanity in it, and it refuses to categorize people as strictly “good” or “bad.” It argues that there’s a lot of gray area when it comes to human behavior. Here’s a movie that takes as its subject someone you might find easy to hate, or at least to dismiss. By the time it’s over, you don’t necessarily like Aileen Wuornos, but you feel for her. You realize that you need to think twice before you call anyone a “monster.”
( out of four)
Note: Although Wuornos killed a number of men, Monster focuses more on her relationship with Selby than on the murders. I would hate to think that anyone would avoid the movie because they mistakenly believed it was a gore-fest.
Monster is rated R for strong violence and sexual content, and for pervasive language. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.
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