Director: Patty Jenkins
Patricia Ducey

Serial 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.

Writer/director 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.

We 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.

There 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.

Although 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.

-- Patricia Ducey

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Copyright Web del Sol, 2004

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