That Girl 

Making a killing in Monster.

Serial-killer chic is one of the most unfortunate and tasteless things to happen to pop culture over the past couple of decades. The elevation of something like Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter character into a communal outlaw hero is but the tip of an iceberg of alluring, mad-genius psychopaths who now (over)populate detective fiction and Hollywood movies.

So Monster, the debut film from writer-director Patty Jenkins, is useful as a cultural corrective if nothing else. A fictionalized account of the case of Aileen Wuornos, a hitchhiking prostitute who was convicted of killing seven men and was recently executed (and who has been the subject of two films by British documentarian Nick Broomfield, one of which screened at last year's IndieMemphis Film Festival), Monster drains the serial-killer concept of any of its dubious voyeuristic thrills or sexual allure.

The title is pointedly ironic: The woman we see is not a monster but a human being who has been beaten into a psychotic state by abusive parents, cruel classmates, exploitative men, violent johns, and the hard realities of subsistence living. The message here is that "monsters" are made, not born, and Jenkins, with considerable help from star Charlize Theron's performance, makes a persuasive case.

After a brief prologue that details Aileen's troubled childhood and entry into prostitution, the film picks up the adult Aileen in Florida on what might be the last day of her life. Our first glimpse is of a wet, dirty, anxious woman, water dripping from her nose and her hand clutching a gun. She's on the verge of suicide but is stopped by the discovery of a five-dollar bill, presumably the last bit of money she has, payment for her last sexual encounter. She decides to put off suicide and spend the money because if she doesn't, she "would have blown him for nothing."

Aileen wanders into what happens to be a lesbian bar, where she meets the meek, awkward Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a young woman tentatively test-driving a new social scene. Selby is looking for "one decent night out before heading back to my parents' closet."

The two share a pitcher of beer and a tortured courtship of sorts, each seeing in the other an abstract object of desire. For Selby, Aileen is an avenue to explore her repressed sexuality. For Aileen, Selby represents the one thing in the world she can care about and that can care about her. She clings to Selby because the idea of her is the only thing keeping Aileen alive. That these two women are united not by their actual feelings for each other but by naked desperation makes the story more moving, especially in Aileen's deluded, fated-to-fail attempt to go straight.

Despite its execution and despite the fact that it's based on a true story, Monster feels perhaps a bit too familiar. In film terms, it could be easily short-handed as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (matter-of-fact depiction of a killing spree) meets Boys Don't Cry (the dramatic physical transformation of a pretty actress; the low-rent, white working-class settings; the same-sex outsider romance -- though the subterranean pairing of beaten-down protagonist and naive sidekick also reminds me of Midnight Cowboy).

Theron dominates the film, and it's her performance that has earned her an Oscar nomination and gotten the film attention. Previously thought of as a lightweight actress, as just a pretty face, the Amazonian Theron engages in one of those de-glammed, physical-transformation-as-acting gambits that has become a time-honored Oscar-bait strategy. (See Hillary Swank, Nicole Kidman, Billy Bob Thornton, Robert De Niro, etc.). But that doesn't mean it isn't still an awfully impressive performance.

Theron gained weight for the role (stripping down to bra and panties to underscore the transformation) and is made up with a splotchy, freckled face, fake teeth, and frazzled hair. With her awkward, lumbering gait, slacker vocal mannerisms ("whatever, man"), and acid-wash-denim wardrobe, she makes Wuornos a particularly unattractive protagonist but not an unsympathetic one. While it's unnerving to see this true story become not much more than a vehicle for one actress' Oscar grab, the fault lies in how the film has been packaged and covered rather than in Theron's performance or Jenkins' direction.

For all the crass media hype of the real-life Wuornos as "America's first female serial killer," her case was different from the Jeffrey Dahmers and John Wayne Gacys of the world. These are men who are emotionally detached from what they do. Monster presents a Wuornos who is emotionally torn by her actions. And she kills not for sport or fulfillment but out of what she perceives as need. Though Jenkins is clearly sympathetic to Wuornos, the director doesn't allow an easy reading of her situation. Wuornos' first killing is depicted as a sensible act of self-defense, but her murders become increasingly troubling. She spares a stuttering john (Pruitt Taylor Vince) who admits he's never been with a prostitute, but later victims include an ex-cop with a paralyzed wife and one man who picks her up solely to offer a ride and gets killed out of Aileen's fear of being exposed for the other murders.

In a lot of these cases, the term "senseless killings" gets thrown around. Jenkins presents plenty of reasons for what Wuornos does -- self-defense, financial desperation, moral vigilantism, delayed retribution. But no excuses.

-- Chris Herrington

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