Monster. Newmarket Films presents a film written and directed by Patty Jenkins. Running time: 111 minutes. Rated R (for strong violence and sexual content, and for pervasive language). Starring Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern.

Monster

Charlize Theron is one of the most beautiful actresses in the country. I had once heard her say that her looks held her back, and I scoffed. After seeing Monster, a biopic about America's "first female serial killer", Aileen Wuornos, I no longer disbelieve that statement. I sure never would have believed she had this in her. I don't know what director Patty Jenkins saw in Theron that made her think she (Theron) could do this, but whatever the reason, it was a wonderful choice.

In order to play Wuornos, Theron underwent the most amazing physical change any actor has undergone since Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, gaining nearly thirty pounds and donning unglamorous make-up in order to look like Wournos. The change is astounding - if you go into Monster without knowing that this is Theron, you will not be able to figure it out until the credits roll. But to focus on Theron's transformation is to underplay the actual performance. Theron has completely inhabited her character, facial expressions, body language, and all. One gets the feeling that Theron stopped even paying attention to the camera, and just began channelling her character completely. There's not only no hint of Theron's beauty in Wuornos, there's no trace of Theron at all. It's better than any performance in 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000...oh, who am I kidding? This is, simply, one of the best performances I've ever seen. Yeah, ever. Twenty years from now, whether Theron has a great acting career (and she should) or not, we will look at her work here in the same way we look at the classic performances of De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson, Brando, Streep, Hepburn, and others. If she doesn't win the Oscar in February, it will be proof positive that the Academy Awards are completely meaningless.

Aileen Wuornos was arrested in 1990 for the murdering of seven men, and she spent twelve years on death row before being executed. The movie opens with Aileen, a Florida prostitute, sitting under a bridge, about to kill herself. In a last ditch effort to find some reason to live, she walks into a nearby lesbian bar to spend her last five dollars. In the bar, she meets Selby (Christina Ricci, proving once again that she is not afraid to take adult, difficult roles), a shy lesbian all but disowned by her religious family. The two talk for a while, and form a relationship. For Aileen, the relationship fulfills her need to be loved by someone, anyone; for Selby, it lets her feel like she belongs somewhere.

Aileen's first killing is in self-defense. She is beat up by one of her johns, tied up in his car, and about to be raped when she frees herself and kills the man with the gun she was earlier going to use to commit suicide. This frees something inside her, and she decides to strike out against any men who attempt to take advantage of her. The spree continues spiraling out of control, until she kills a man who wants to help her, simply because he sees her gun. Meanwhile, Selby becomes sort of Aileen's enabler, pushing her to get new vehicles and more money.

The film is disturbing, not because of the subject matter, but because of the way Aileen is presented. We are told of the difficulty of her life; from childhood, she has been abandoned and alone. She is developed into a full, three-dimensional character that has a little bit of our sympathy. The film never asks us to forgive her acts, but it does ask us to consider the conditions that she had to live through, and what caused her to kill.

Monster offers no easy answers, and it makes no attempt to defend Aileen's actions, but it makes us see her as a human, rather than the unfeeling monster of the title. If Aileen had ever gotten a break in life, her acts would be inexcusable. But she never got a chance. So we don't forgive her, but we do understand.

© 2004 Matt Noller