Rated R - Running Time: 1:51 - Released 12/26/03

I had no idea who Aileen Wuornos was until about two months ago when I saw a TV documentary about her, the release of which was timed in conjunction with this film. Aileen Wuornos, called Lee by her friends, was the Florida woman who made headlines in the early ‘90s as “America’s first female serial killer.” The validity of this label is somewhat faulty—there have been many women who committed more than one murder, but Wuornos, a highway prostitute who confessed to killing seven men from December 1989 through November 1990, had adopted the methods of the serial killer previously reserved for males: she killed strangers, she used a gun, and her crimes were done on separate occasions, with a “cooling off” period in-between (as opposed to a killing spree that takes place all at once). After more than 10 years on Florida’s death row, she was executed by lethal injection on October 9, 2002.

Monster, written and directed by Patty Jenkins (her first feature film after a couple of shorts), is based on Wuornos’s story; although it is as tragic and brutal a film as they come, it serves as an acting tour-de-force for Charlize Theron, who has already won the Golden Globe and been nominated for the Oscar in the Best Actress category. Also excellent is Christina Ricci in the supporting role of Lee’s lesbian partner Tyria Moore (her name was changed to Selby Wall for the film), who famously took the stand and helped convict her former lover without ever making eye contact. While the performances of the two leads, who share the huge majority of screen time, make this an important film to see—unpleasant subject matter notwithstanding—its strange construction may annoy viewers who have knowledge of the Wuornos case. The film focuses on the relationship between the two women, but mixes up events, presents a misleading timeline, and gives short shrift to the trial, which included some of the most amazing aspects of the story. But the film, thanks largely to Theron’s performance, does accomplish the difficult task of making its main character both a sympathetic protagonist and a brutal villain, the classic anti-hero(ine) which, if we cannot exactly get behind, we at least care about in some strange, pathetic way.

The film begins with a short overview of Lee’s childhood, during which, under Theron’s voiceover, we learn how she was ridiculed, sexually and physically abused, and/or rejected by just about everyone in her life, while clinging to the hope that she would be discovered someday and become a star like Marilyn Monroe. Then we cut to 1989, when we first see Theron as the adult Lee, sitting under a highway overpass in the rain, contemplating suicide. But rather than killing herself, she decides to go to a bar and spend her last five dollars. There she meets Selby (Ricci), a young lesbian, and the two hit it off—but Selby has family issues. She is currently staying with her extremely conservative aunt and uncle, because her father in Ohio has disowned her for being gay. Needless to say, they have no use for Selby’s new friend, and forbid the girl from seeing her again. But Selby decides to leave their home and move into a hotel room with Lee, who promises to finance their life together by getting a real job. After a few ill-fated job interviews, she returns to turning tricks on the interstate for money.

The first murder occurs when Lee’s client (Lee Tergesen) turns out to be a sadistic creep who ties her up, beats and sodomizes her, and obviously intends to kill her when he’s done. She struggles free, shoots him several times, and steals his car and possessions, leaving his body in the woods. After returning to the motel room and cleaning up, she eventually admits to a horrified Selby that she killed a man, but that it was in self-defense. Soon, however, she begins offing every client who looks at her the wrong way, including a man who simply offers her a ride (Scott Wilson).

As is usually the case when a beautiful actress changes her appearance for a role (e.g., Nicole Kidman in The Hours or Salma Hayek in Frida), that itself is what has caused most of the buzz about this movie. Theron reportedly gained almost 30 pounds for the part and sports false teeth, stringy hair, and a freckle-covered face which transforms her (thanks in part to makeup artist Toni G.) from the glamorous Hollywood actress we all know into an uncanny resemblance to the real Wuornos. But it is her extremely raw, powerful performance that makes all the difference in my book. Theron’s attitude, her walk, her body language are totally different from anything she’s done before, and her behavior immediately after the first murder, like an animal after a successful hunt, tells us something about Lee that is of crucial importance; it is a major psychological turning point for the character. Admitting later that she hates men, she gets a chip on her shoulder, a sort of give-me-a-reason attitude with her subsequent clients, and her murders become more brutal, less “justified,” and perpetrated on victims who are less and less threatening. Since Wuornos maintained throughout her trial that all her victims were rapists, but then suddenly changed that story just before her execution and claimed that only the first killing was in self-defense, it was of utmost importance that we understand this transition, and Theron and writer/director Jenkins have little difficulty pulling it off.

Meanwhile, Ricci is so effective at making Selby an innocent, impressionable young girl, easily led by Lee into a life of crime, we are able to sympathize rather than revile her—not a small task for a woman who was a lesbian and lover to a notorious cold-blooded killer. The movie does imply that Selby coerced Lee into one of the murders, but no such charges were ever brought against Moore (this may, of course, be the result of a plea bargain, but one of the rare consistencies in Wuornos’s testimony was that Moore was absolutely innocent). Also on hand is Bruce Dern as Lee’s only male friend, who tries to help her straighten out her life but ultimately has to watch her self-made destruction.

There are some strange choices made regarding the sequence of events in Jenkins’s screenplay, which is reportedly based on Wuornos’s own letters. First, the film makes it look like all the murders (we only witness four) took place in a few weeks; in truth they were spread out over almost a year. More importantly, the trial/execution period is covered at such a breakneck speed in the final reel, it omits or glosses over many of the most interesting things about the case, including Lee’s numerous versions of the story in her testimony, her adoption by born-again Christian Arlene Pralle, her spiteful comments to the judge and jury after her conviction, and her bizarre last words. Regardless of flaws in the story line, however, the performances by Theron and Ricci make this unpleasant story one of the best films of 2003. ****½

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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