Oscar winner Charlize Theron gained 30 pounds, wore a dental prosthesis and dark brown contact lenses to transform from a stunning ex-model into the less-than-stunning serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was executed by George W Bush’s brother Jeb in 2002. The Oscar hype is for once justified: Theron is a revelation in this, her first starring role in what is writer/director Patti Jenkin’s first feature film. Usually cast as the love interest in the likes of The Italian Job and The Cider House Rules, Theron carries this film with an intense performance easily as impressive as Jessica Lange in Frances or even Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.
The plot is reminiscent Badlands or Bonnie & Clyde – a love story set against a backdrop of murder. The film concentrates on a very brief period Wuornos’s life, namely the killing spree which took place between 1989 and 1990. Her tragic childhood of sexual abuse and teenage prostitution is only referred to in passing, which a pity as the abuse and neglect she suffered as a young girl undoubtedly influenced her adult behaviour and mental state. We don’t hear about the mother who abandoned her, the grandfather who abused her, or how at 13 she lived rough in the woods before turning to prostitution. The dynamic of the film is her relationship with Selby (Christina Ricci), a young lesbian from a fundamentalist Christian family who is trying to come to terms with her homosexuality. In reality Wuornos’s lover’s real name was Tyria Moore, but Moore is notoriously litigious, having sued makers of previous films about Wuornos. As such names of all the characters (with the exception of Wuornos’s own) have been changed.
The film begins with Wuornos meeting Selby in a gay bar in Florida, despite Wuornos’s claim that she is not a lesbian, she and Selby quickly fall in love. The early scenes are genuinely touching: Wuornos acts a gallant suitor who will do whatever she can to protect and provide for the only person who has shown her any affection or tenderness. Ricci is very impressive as the doe-eyed yet needy Selby, whose childlike features belie a strong manipulative streak.
The title of the film is somewhat ironic: it refers to a Ferris wheel of Wuornos’s adolescence, representing a moment of fleeting happiness in an otherwise tragic youth. Here director Patty Jenkins stresses the point that Wuornos isn’t a monster, but a severely damaged person who never really stood a chance. This is most apparent in the movie when Wuornos attempts to give up prostitution and find a real job, scenes that manage to be both blackly humorous and heartbreakingly sad.
Jenkins gives a sympathetic yet balanced view of Wuornos’s crimes – we see Wuornos being brutally raped by her first victim at the start of the film but we also see innocent men begging for their lives. Her motive for killing remains ambiguous – was it to provide money for a happy-ever-after with Selby or was Wuornos completely consumed by hatred for all men?
Monster is a film that won’t be to everybody’s taste. This is not glossy Hollywood fare, at times it’s not easy to watch, and those looking for a run-of-the-mill serial killer flick will probably be disappointed. I would have like to have seen more about Wuornos’s early life and her trial, but there is only so much detail you can fit into a two-hour film. However, Monster remains an interesting and thought-provoking character study and a very promising debut from Patti Jenkins.