killer movies have something for everybody. They provide nifty narrative
trajectories that have stood the test of time: the pure gore fest,
the morality play, or the indictment of society stories all are
so familiar to moviegoers that we can all sing along and go home
scared, enlightened, or happy. But the best among them, like Silence
of the Lambs or Badlands (my pick as the genre’s
masterpiece), allow us, force us, even, into something deeper, into
nether regions of the psyche where perhaps our own bloody impulses
bubble away. The worst, like Seven, whorishly disguise
their base intentions with high production values and high-end actors,
but remain gore fests nonetheless. There is nothing left to the
imagination or soul, no reason for yet another dolled up gore fest,
after Seven’s excesses: the murderer’s still
living victims, pinned writhing to tables, or the most cynical shot
of all, pretty blonde Gwyenth’s head delivered in a box into
pretty blond Brad’s hands.
Patty Jenkins’ Monster is better than Seven,
not as good as Badlands, but worth a trip to the multiplex.
Jenkins gives us the reality-based story of Aileen Wuornos, a rare
female serial killer, who in 1989-90 killed seven men, was captured
and tried and executed in 1991. Her highly publicized saga became
an inkblot of sorts that feminists, law and order types, writers
and psychiatrists could project their fantasies onto. Monster
is the result of Jenkins’ own fascination and research that
included a correspondence with Wuornos herself.
meet Wuornos at the beginning of the film as the hooker she was,
eking out a marginal existence on the highways of Florida. She kills
a john in self-defense and shortly after meets lonely, shy lesbian
Selby Wall, a fictitious version of Wuornos’ real tough-as-nails
lover. Christina Ricci’s naïve but warm and intelligent
Selby improbably falls in love at first sight with the confused
and bedraggled Wuornos and later tags along on the crime spree.
Their love story is the spine of the story. Like other secondary
characters, Ricci’s Selby (the “good one”) is
hampered by the script’s one-note characterizations, which
weaken the story. Wuornos goes on to kill six more of her johns
and to steal their cars and their money, in unpredictable bursts
of homicidal rage. Eventually she and Selby are arrested, and Selby,
again improbably, testifies against her. Wuornos is convicted and
led out of the courtroom raging and unrepentant. The several books
and documentaries about her still have not pinned down an essential
Aileen Wuornos; and, still a cipher, she went to her death the way
she lived, with unflagging fury and braggadocio.
is much to admire in Monster, not the least of which is
Charlize Theron’s illuminating, transgressive performance.
She transforms herself into the hard ass Wuornos with an overkill
of makeup and prosthetics, but her real triumph is way she inhabits
her soul: the twitchy gait, the darting eyes above a crooked smile,
all denote a woman who is no doubt doomed. She does not fit easily
into her clothes or her own skin, much less this planet. The oddball
clothes and even Theron’s clumsy, crazy speech pattern etch
a portrait of an identity that is slipping away despite a formidable
act of will into delusion. We cannot hear Theron thinking, “I
am acting.” At every level she is the alienated, un-self-conscious
Wuornos pretending to be whomever she needs to be in order to survive.
She gets it.
first time filmmaker Jenkins shows great promise, she checks her
swing at the all important story level here. If we are to sympathize
with Wuornos as a victim, we have to know her life story. Jenkins
chooses to omit her early life, except for brief references to a
troubled childhood. But a tacked-on sympathy almost defeats the
power of this story, and Jenkins should have trusted Theron enough
to let her take us along on her wild ride to hell. That’s
where I wanted Monster to take me. I left the film with
an explanation; I wanted an experience. The best cinema, in my mind,
is not realism or explanation at all, but a revelation -- like Theron’s
work here -- a ghost story told around a campfire, with strangers
just a comforting fingertip away. Huddled in the dark, we can listen
to the storyteller and conjure up a vision of our own dark self
and watch it dance harmless above the flames until the light returns.
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Copyright Web del Sol, 2004