FILM REVIEW

'Monster' a mesmerizing milestone for Theron


Christina Ricci, left, and Charlize Theron star in "Monster," the story of convicted murderer Aileen Wuornos.

JAN MITCHELL AND ASSOCIATES
Published: Friday, January 23, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 22, 2004 at 11:03 p.m.
Charlize Theron wades through "Monster" like a jittery shark trolling virgin waters, casting an enveloping shadow that sends all the other denizens scurrying.
As serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Theron is a mix of inexhaustible rage and inescapable vulnerability. She inspires revulsion and empathy in contrasting wavelengths of furious strength. This is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Theron's career and certainly the most indelible film performance of 2003.
Many people will find any portrayal of Wuornos as sympathetic and unpalatable, particularly friends and relatives of her victims, who were all murdered in Central Florida. Executed in October 2002, for six counts of murder, Wuornos' deeds made perfect tabloid fodder - a prostitute who killed her johns and took their money and cars to support a partying lifestyle with her lesbian lover.
Her case became the subject of film documentaries, several books and even a stage opera. She's been written off as a soulless contraption of evil and celebrated as a feminist hero who was merely a victim of male violence.
Where does the truth lie? Only Wuornos, who made contradictory statements during her 10 years on death row, can say for sure. But writer/director Patty Jenkins' auspicious debut is more concerned with mapping the extremes of human suffering than strict adherence to crime-story facts. "Monster" approaches its subject not through journalistic recitation but via artistic cartography.
Much has been made of the physical transformation of Theron, a tall, willowy former model. She gained weight, dressed in layers of flannel and filth, and underwent extensive makeup and prosthetics to resemble Wuornos. But these are merely surface modifications, flecks of foam embroidering the ripples above a turbulent ocean.
Theron embodies Wuornos as a beat-down, spiritually decayed creature who transitions from victim to victimizer because of a desperate need to be loved. Abandoned by her family for prostituting and having a baby while still in her early teens, Lee - as she's known - has seen her childhood dreams fade into a nightmare existence. She contemplates ending her life with the rusty pistol but determines to spend her last $5 first.
But after stumbling into a bar to drop the five-spot on beer, Lee meets Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a shy girl who's been exiled to Florida by her parents to "cure" her burgeoning homosexuality. At first Lee is violently outraged at the come-on but soon recognizes in Selby a genuine chance at affection. Lee grasps at perhaps the first real human relationship in her life with frightening intensity.
After inept attempts to land a straight job, Lee returns to hooking at Selby's urging. But her first job turns out to be a violent misogynist who beats her up and assaults her before Lee turns the tables and kills him. Scared out of her mind at first, she soon becomes fixated on killing her johns as the path of least resistance to keeping Selby - and as a way of righting the scales for the men who've taken advantage of her.
The murders are depicted with unblinking brutality, and Lee's justification as self-defense becomes weaker with repetition, until the last victim (a brief but moving performance by Scott Wilson) is seen as wholly innocent and pitiable; Lee has become the malevolent aggressor she once despised. It's a tragic journey back to full circle that, were it fictitious, easily could be dubbed Shakespearean.
If there's a problem with the movie, it's in the character of Selby. Though clearly based on Wuornos' lover, Tyria Moore, she's been recast both in name and essence. As played by Ricci, Selby is a diminutive wallflower, passive but slyly manipulative - a far cry from the burly, barefisted Moore depicted in news reports.
"Monster" does not quite reach the plateau of greatness, but Theron's performance - brave, terrifying, crushingly honest - deserves to be exalted as one of the all-time great achievements in film acting.
"You'll never meet someone like me again," Lee tells Selby, and it's unlikely filmgoers will ever experience such total, mesmerizing immersion in a character as Charlize Theron's Aileen Wuornos.
Christopher Lloyd is entertainment editor at the Star-Banner in Ocala.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top