Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review: Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003)

Monster, written and directed by Patty Jenkins, is a bleak but engaging recount of the story of convicted serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was executed in the state of Florida in 2002 for the murder of seven men in the late 1980's and early 1990's. The case received a bunch of media attention, presenting Wuornos as an imposing monstrous presence, and tagged as "America's first female serial killer." At the centre of the drama is a truly startling Oscar winning performance from Charlize Theron as Wuornos, a Florida-residing prostitute who killed men after they picked her up in their cars. Theron's commitment to this role required her to gain about 30 pounds and wear prosthetic teeth. She also underwent an impressive transformation to closely resemble the woman's appearance. Much of her own preparation came from watching clips in between takes of Nick Bloomfield's 1992 documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. While she receives excellent support from Christina Ricci as her lesbian lover, Selby Wall, their somewhat incredible romance is certainly a key detractor from the film.

While the screenplay is essentially a glaring simplification of the life of Aileen Wuornos, Monster takes an unbiased and compelling look at the anatomy of a naturally-born serial killer, from the roots of her motives and her relationship with Selby Wall, to the willingness to commit acts of pure evil out of desperation and ultimately her sincere regret for the course of her actions. At all times though, we are studying the human side of this woman, with brief glimpses of the monstrous. The film actually forces us to side with Aileen, and not merely because she is the centre of the film. If we were to despise her, I'm sure the reception of the film would not be nearly as warm. Patty Jenkins presents her as a near-helpless woman trying desperately to avoid falling any lower than she already is, and desiring to become someone respected by society. An intimidating, cursing, chain-smoking, beer drinking presence, she was an irrational woman all her life. Completely broke, she patrols the barren Florida highways, flagging down cars and offering her experienced services to slimy men. She struggles to survive day to day off her hooking income, forced to wash herself in public restrooms.

After a very swift montage of the early years of Aileen's life, we are thrust straight into her adult life; the period following her move to Florida. This montage is accompanied by a voice-over from Theron, explaining that Aileen had never been able to fit in and just wanted people to recognize and love her for who she truly was. It is one night that she decides to use the remaining five dollars she had in her possession on a beer. In a gay club, she orders a beer and is approached by the sexually curious teenager Selby Wall, who offers to buy her a drink. After initial verbal retaliation from Aileen, she allows her to sit and converse with her. She remains adamant that she has had no lesbian experience, but essentially her sordid profession had left her with no taste for sex at all. After taking to her immediately, Selby invites Aileen to stay the night with her, and the unlikely friendship blossoms. For Selby, however, her new friendship poses a threat to her current household. She is temporarily exiled from her parents place following the accusation from another girl at church that Selby tried to kiss her. Having been attracted to Aileen and finding her presence protective, she decides to remain in Florida and move into an apartment with her.

It is only affordable for the couple because of Aileen's first murder of a client (Lee Tergesen, OZ), who she killed out of self-defense as the man had at first tried to rape and brutalize her. Following a series of failed attempts to find legitimate work, a frustrated Aileen returns to prostitution, where she embarks on her killing rampage. She robs her victims so she can support both herself and Selby, who are now struggling to pay their bills. While the murders are planned at origin, she finds herself becoming more and more desperate to evade capture, even having to kill an sympathetic elderly man who had offered to help her.

Charlize Theron's captivating performance is certainly amongst the decades most impressive. She doesn't just 'play' Wuornos, she totally inhabits her overwhelming pity for herself, her volcanic anger, an occasional sense of euphoria but mostly her impenetrable sadness at her own existence. Through her performance you realize that she empathizes with Eileen Wuornos and is channeling all of her feelings about this woman through her speech and mannerisms. Most of this is revealed in the eyes; and not just how committed Theron is to the role, but also how scarred and broken her character truly is. Technically, it's not so impressive. The grainy cinematography, which actually reminded me a lot of John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, lacks some imagination, resorting mostly to alternating close-ups during dialogue. This was an effective way to display, countless times throughout the film, just how impressive Theron's makeover is. All of the dealings with her clients in their cars are shot the same way, and it becomes slightly repetitive, while the relationship with Selby also feels dramatized. Was Selby really so naive as to be seduced into living with Aileen? Where was the appeal? She becomes frustrated with Aileen for not providing for them, while she sits around the apartment all day. While she refuses to look for work, Aileen is out killing people to provide for her. The unnecessary arc that sees Selby meeting some women at a bar and deciding to take Aileen to the fun-fair, also felt out-of-place.

The conclusion, which was the subject of much publicity at the time and has been captured in the aforementioned documentary, is quickly wrapped up. Selby testifies against Wuornos at her trial, and she is convicted and sentenced to death. Monster is a repulsive but gripping portrayal of one woman's tragic life. We find that there are no excuses for her actions, but there were reasons, and the film is a success in making these visible.

My Rating: 4 Stars

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