In October 2002, convicted killer Aileen Wuornos was executed in Florida by lethal injection. During a bloody spree beginning in late 1989, Wuornos shot to death seven men while hustling along central Florida highways. The details of her brutal, pathetic life have been the subject of a television movie, an opera, several books, a forest of print articles and two documentaries by Nick Broomfield. And now it's become grist for a celebrity makeover in the offensive art-house exploitation flick "Monster."
"Monster" was written and directed by Patty Jenkins, a newcomer of some obvious talent. But the film's big news, its gimmick and reason for being, is that actress Charlize Theron stripped away her supermodel looks to play Wuornos. Equipped with prosthetic teeth, her willowy figure thickened, Theron has undergone the sort of physical transformation that earns accolades from an industry that sees homeliness and pudgy thighs as catastrophes of epic proportions.
On the level of craft, the metamorphosis is painstaking. The teeth are persuasive, as are the splotches of sun damage sprayed across the character's forehead. And Theron has nailed Wuornos' strange, jutting posture — the macho thrust of her chest and the defensive way she held back her neck and head, as if she were waiting for the next blow.
Wuornos' life was a series of excruciating blows. Abandoned by her teenage mother into her grandparents' care after she was born (her father hanged himself after being charged in the rape of a child), Wuornos was raised in rural Michigan. At 13, she gave birth to a baby that was probably sired by the local pedophile, and the infant was quickly put up for adoption. Kicked out of her house, Wuornos lived in some woods near her home for several years, swapping sex for a warm place to sleep. She was horribly damaged and probably nuts when at age 33 she shot her first victim; by the time Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed her death warrant in 2002, she had come to believe that her sadly muddled mind was being controlled by radio waves.
You get glimpses of how muddled her mind was in "Monster," which Jenkins frames as a love story gone haywire. Shortly after the film opens, Wuornos meets Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), based on Wuornos' ex-girlfriend. The two lost, lonely women go at each other like alley cats, which leads to the usual tastefully discreet movie sex. Selby likes being coddled, but Wuornos doesn't know how to financially support them without selling herself, which is why, in Jenkins' formulation, she returns to hooking.
She kills one man in self-defense. The dead pile up alongside scenes in which Jenkins tries to humanize the killer, but undermines her humanity by making her the object of queasy camp fun, including one episode in which Aileen mispronounces "Chablis" — a moment that reveals far more about the filmmakers than the character.
It's easy to see why Wuornos captivated Jenkins and Theron; women killers are big news, and Wuornos was fascinating. Incest victim, prostitute, killer — she represented many different things to many different people. Upon her arrest, investigators gave Wuornos the headline-grabbing designation "serial killer" when a few forensics experts claimed that she was more properly a multiple killer. Someone anointed her the "Damsel of Death" and the press fed on the story with the frenzy of blood-crazed sharks. (Broomfield aptly titled his first documentary on her, "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer.") The trial was as sordid and depressing as the life of the accused, who even became a poster girl for deluded feminists who rationalized the crimes with a battered woman defense.
But phony choppers and a startling resemblance to Jon Voight aren't enough to transform Theron into Wuornos, and I didn't buy either the performance or the character for a second. Theron, a talented actress who should stop making junk like "Trapped" if she wants to be taken seriously, works hard to find her character. But because Jenkins doesn't have the guts to make Wuornos inwardly monstrous, as ugly as her ugly deeds, Theron can't get a bead on this slippery enigma. From scene to scene, Jenkins paints Wuornos as a tragic victim, a tragic lover and the tragic embodiment of white-trash comedy, more desperate than insane or unsympathetic. Forced to skim the surface of too many types, the actress wears Wuornos like a shell, but never animates the pulp beneath.
Lonely and starved for love, the real Wuornos led a miserable, emotionally impoverished life and in Broomfield's forthcoming documentary, "Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer," that life often comes across as heart-wrenching. But the agonies of this shattered woman don't explain why Wuornos murdered seven men, and I can't imagine that anything could. Jenkins has other ideas, though, and she spends the entire movie flailing at rationales and, unbelievably, trying to turn Wuornos and her girlfriend into metaphors for some vague decay in the vein of Terrence Malick's "Badlands." In the end, Jenkins seems to want to pin the murders everywhere but on Wuornos, a tactic that makes the movie and the character easier to market. The selling of this killer continues.
MPAA rating: R, for strong violence and sexual content and for pervasive language
Times guidelines: Adult language, graphic sex, disturbing violence
Charlize Theron...Aileen Wuornos
Christina Ricci...Selby Wall
Scott Wilson...Horton/ last "john"
Pruitt Taylor Vince...Gene/stuttering "john"
Newmarket Films in association with Media 8 Entertainment/DEJ Productions present a K/W Productions and Denver & Delilah Films production in association with VIP Medienfonds 2/MDP Filmproduktion. Writer-director Patty Jenkins. Producers Charlize Theron, Mark Damon, Clark Peterson, Donald Kushner, Brad Wyman. Director of photography Steven Bernstein. Production designer Edward T. McAvoy. Editors Jane Kurson, Arthur Coburn. Music BT. Music supervisor Howard Paar. Casting Ferne Cassel. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
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