The monster in the title of this shudder-inducing film is not Aileen Wuornos, highway prostitute and serial killer, played by Charlize Theron. "The Monster" was a big Ferris wheel with red and yellow lights that Wuornos, as a teen-ager, was too terrified to ride. It is a symbol of her adolescent vulnerability and the childhood she never had.
Director Patty Jenkins, borrowing from the facts of Wuornos' life -- she was convicted of six first-degree murders in Florida in 1992 and executed in 2002 -- uses these little details, found in letters from Wuornos to her best friend and in interviews with the infamous killer, to flesh out a woman most people would be more comfortable demonizing. That is not to say that Jenkins tries to elicit sympathy for Wuornos; she does not. As portrayed in Monster, Wuornos was a woman with a history of poverty and dreadful abuse who made a long string of bad choices, culminating in her first murder, then escalating into a prolonged madness that looks like borderline personality disorder and hypermania. She was not a monster, but a profoundly damaged human.
(Warning: If you don't already know the details of Wuornos' life of crime, don't read further. They are a widely dispersed matter of public record, however, and constitute a bare plot outline of the movie.)
Monster begins on the day that Wuornos -- broke, homeless and depressed -- meets Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a curious innocent seeking a lesbian lover. Wuornos falls for her in short order, opening herself up to a co-dependent relationship that casts her as breadwinner and Selby as nurturer. Trying to score some money, Aileen hitches a ride and prostitutes herself to a man who beats her, ties her up, rapes and tortures her. In a terrifying moment of sheer will, she cuts herself loose and empties her revolver into the guy, committing her first murder.
For a short while, Wuornos tries to go straight, but her ventures into the workaday world are disastrous. Theron is brilliant in these scenes, dressing Wuornos in flowered frocks and hiding her terror behind anger and grandiosity.
Desperate to keep Selby, who has grown whiny and dissatisfied with the poverty of their lives, Wuornos goes back to hooking and kills a string of men who pick her up -- some potentially bad guys, some just pathetic, and one, completely innocent of anything except a desire to help her. Theron plays Wuornos' decline into blind rage and murderous despair with a world-worn ache rarely seen onscreen.
Eventually, Wuornos is arrested and Selby turns state's witness against her. In a tender telephone scene from prison, Aileen realizes that she must confess if she is going to protect Selby, and that her life is essentially over. A brief courtroom scene follows, along with a characteristic raging outburst from Aileen, trapped and beaten but incapable of remorse except over the loss of Selby.
Much has been made of former model and certified babe Theron gaining 30 pounds, wearing fake crooked teeth, taking on a leathery latex complexion and basically transforming herself for this role. It's true and for a few moments it's astonishing. But focusing merely on the physical props of her character diminishes the power of her performance. This is simply one of the purest, deepest, emotional immersions into a character in movie history. Theron captures Wuornos' wild energy, her bullying posture, her irrationality and her emotional vulnerability with a natural presence and grace. It is a rare occasion in the movies when an actor becomes a character, and this is one of those extraordinary occasions.
The rest of the actresses who received Oscar nominations might as well sit back in their designer gowns and enjoy the evening, come Feb. 29, because Academy Award night this year belongs to Charlize Theron.
Kimball's Twin Peak