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Monster

 


We have to admit that Charlize Theron hadn't really been on our radar before she picked up an Oscar recently for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the movie Monster. If you take her with Naomi Watts, Maria Bello, Monica Potter, Cate Blanchett ..... all fine actresses and beautiful ladies to be sure but there seems to be one or another of them in every film that comes out these days. And with Gwyneth and Ashley and Angelina Jolie all going blonde here and there as well, these flaxen ingénues have started seeming somewhat interchangeable to us. At least until Oscar intervened. Not that we typically pay much attention to what "the Academy" deems worthy of our viewing time or would have based an opinion solely on their approval. It just so happened that we caught footage of Charlize's acceptance speech for best actress on the same day we happened to see a preview of the film for which she was given the award. And while we were touched by the lithe and stunning Theron, clutching the statuette as she broke down on stage while thanking her mother (at left, a heroic woman reportedly who was forced to gun down young Charlize's abusive father in front of her and made huge sacrifices for her daughter to make it over to Hollywood from South Africa), we couldn't believe it was th
e same trashed and weather beaten character we'd just seen in the trailer for the film. Sure, makeup, special effects, prosthetic teeth, blah blah blah but it still seemed like there had been some mistake, like the two of them were such very different people that it couldn't possibly be. Well, we've since seen the film and must say that, only after spending most of the movie struggling to get past the character's herky jerky mannerisms, her tired unhealthy body, and her splotchy damaged skin, were we able to stare intently into the blacks of Wuornos' haunted eyes and we can report with confidence that it does, indeed, appear to be Theron hiding back in there. And what we might say as well is that we can't remember a performance more worthy of an Academy Award.

This particular biopic doesn't paint a pretty picture of course and we have no idea whether the real Aileen Wuornos (at right, Theron's version is left), who was executed in 2002 for the murder of seven men in Florida, had any redeeming qualities at all. She was a prostitute who had been raped, abused, and pregnant at the hands of various members of her own family by age thirteen, and took to the Florida streets soon after for ten years in the life until she eventually began killing her Johns and got caught. The first gentleman was reportedly shot in self defense during a trick gone brutally bad and the last a good Samaritan who was only trying to help her out with a ride when she killed him because she was afraid he would recognize her from police sketches. Hard to say what transpired in between but, according to the film, Wuornos had been making attempts to fly right. After meeting the young runaway Selby Wall, played with appropriate coquettish distractedness by Christina Ricci, first time writer/director Patty Jenkins has Wuornos struggling to be the provider and protect the young girl who she, reluctantly at first, develops a lesbian relationship with, and later comes to love in that needy unhealthily chaotic way typical of the streets. 

Jenkins, who was reportedly corresponding with Wuornos right up until the time Jeb Bush decided it was time for her to die, clearly has researched the situation, so we have to assume that the director saw some redeeming features in the woman that prompted what some might call a sympathetic portrayal. Whatever the real story is, Theron (left) and Jenkins make a convincing case that Wuornos, while not an admirable person necessarily, was at least not always the monster of the film's title. She may have been uneducated, course, washed out, beaten down and homeless but she comes off as spunkily brave at times and with traces of a good heart showing through when it should have long since blackened and died in her chest. The movie version of Wuornos shows a woman battling against tremendous odds simply to eek out a pitiful existence on the mean streets of life. As her character says towards the end of the film talking with her drunken, Vietnam vet friend Tom, played by Bruce Dern,  "It's like I never even had a choice in my life and suddenly there I was. Here I am. And now that you're here you still got to live and get by somehow right?"

And the way Theron physically carries herself through this movie with the swagger and defiance of the distrustfully proud, the drunkenly confident brawler, the street hardened hooker still capable of the occasional dream, is a performance for the ages. The accomplishment is not so much physical in the make-up or dental prosthetics or weight gain but in her skittery mannerisms, fleeting glances, and belligerent cadence of speech which become absolutely bewitching to behold. She might not make you root for this woman or even feel sorry for her all that much but she sure makes you believe that you are seeing something real. Theron is totally lost inside this person and the seemingly, uncomfortable in her own skin, way that Aileen walks and talks and thrusts her hips and sets her jaw towards the world is so completely antithetical to the woman that took the stage to accept the Oscar that the performance seems to completely quantify what acting, and for that matter, acting awards, should be all about but rarely are.

That being said however, we are not sure whether our point here should be that just because Monster contains a must see acting performance, that necessarily makes it a must see and credible film. Theron's inspired efforts certainly go a long way towards rendering a thoroughly unpleasant subject both accessible and engaging if not exactly making for enjoyable entertainment. But another inevitable result of her work is that, because her portrayal of this tragic woman is so convincing, Monster comes off like a documentary instead of a feature film. And this might tend to make potential critics feel as if they have no business analyzing the director's choices since all she is doing is showing us pictures of the life struggles that faced a real woman. If we keep in mind however that this is not, in fact, the case and some degree of artistic license has obviously come into play with this film, the director could be seen as an apologist for any unfortunate citizen who decides that embarking on a murderous spree is a legitimate response to the hard hand life often deals people. And while this film didn't feel particularly preachy to us, we definitely left feeling sorry for the real Aileen Wuornos and all but forgetting that, for whatever reason, she killed seven different men, six of which were possibly not guilty of anything more than picking up a hitchhiker or prostitute. Does director Jenkins (shown coaching Theron above) do enough to justify the murders by flushing out the sordid past of a woman driven to such extreme lengths? Is it even possible to justify murder on those grounds? Perhaps not, but Jenkins has created a character in Aileen that it is easy to believe may have been driven to a level of psychosis indicative of a lifetime hooker who was beaten and raped as a child to the point where she is contemplating suicide under an overpass (the point at which the film begins). The fact that she didn't pull the trigger and instead entered a Daytona gay bar to meet the first person in her life in Selby (actually Tyria Moore, a tough looking redhead reportedly and a far cry from the blinking Ricci) that seems to care about her, eventually ends up costing seven men their lives. At what point do we ask that a movie that is "based on a true story" strictly adhere to the facts? Is it possible to know what the facts are? The first John she kills after taking up with Selby had tied her up and was brutalizing her in the film and in real life had been convicted ten years earlier for a violent rape although this was never brought up at Wuornos' trial. Wuornos, who reportedly remained profane and defiant to the end, changed her story several times on the subject and who knows if she even really remembered the exact details herself. So whether Jenkins has told a riveting and true story and made a film that makes a strong case against capital punishment, or played loose with the unfortunate details of a real person's life to create a tragically fictional love story is matter for some interesting debate. That debate however, is somewhat beyond the scope of this review. 

We suspect the answer lies somewhere in between. 

In any event we give Monster our highest recommendation based not only on the stellar acting, (Ricci's performance is good as well) but also because of the fact that, not once during the 109 minutes of this movie, did it occur to us that we were even watching one.

Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.