Patty Jenkins’ film, MONSTER, is brilliant, breathtaking, and completely unforgettable. Those are words that are sorely overused in the land of crit-speak, and yet there are few films that are so very deserving of them. Jenkins biographical story of Aileen Wournos, convicted serial killer, has all the earmarks of a tabloid tale from one of the more lurid purveyors of such. Instead of pandering to that crowd by exploiting the admittedly lurid subject matter, she has turned in a stark, gritty film etched in vitriol by Jenkins and a stunning (yes, another overused word) performance by Charlize Theron.
At every turn, Jenkins makes crystal clear how the very society that turned Wournos into a disposable human being is also to blame for turning her into the monster of the title. She makes the case that Wournos was not insane when she killed the men who patronized her as a prostitute, rather, she had been savvy enough to learn how to live on the streets after enduring a childhood of abuse that included a rape at age eight. The rules she followed, victim turning into the victimizer, were the only reality that made sense to her. They were the rules that kept her alive.
Life is very much on Wournos mind as Jenkins begins. She is sitting under an overpass, holding a gun and contemplating suicide. Instead of ending it right then, she decides to spend her last five dollars first. When she spends it at a gay bar, she meets the love of her heretofore heterosexual life, Selby (Christina Ricci). Selby is a mousy little thing with her arm in a cast and a longing for love and, more importantly, acceptance, after being tossed out by her fundamentalist father. Shes found a place with family friends, though shes ready to toss it in exchange for Wournos, who finds herself inexplicably attracted to this sweet innocent who is so starry-eyed over her. Wournos, against all odds, still believes in love, as we learn in Therons often ironic voice-over. This is someone unschooled in tenderness or compassion or the niceties of normal social interaction, but who still yearns for them.
Jenkins traces the evolution of their genuinely touching romance while contrasting it with the hopelessness of Wournos attempt to leave hooking and find a legal job. Dressed in thrift store leftovers put together with a poignant cluelessness, she discovers the same sort of contempt from potential employers that she used receive from her johns. The nicest of the bunch cuts her off after learning of her criminal record and tells her the best she can do is factory work, of which there is none. Wournos, unable to contain her frustration, reacts the way her street smarts have taught her, she explodes, effectively ending any hope of even this kind of work. With no choice but to go back to hooking in order to give Selby everything she dreams of, Wournos also goes on a killing spree, shooting the johns who unwittingly trigger memories of the rape that made her want to quit.
Theron is an epiphany, not just her talent, but also demonstrating what an actor can accomplish in creating a character on screen with such startling vividness. It is a piece of work up there with Tom Wilkinson in IN THE BEDROOM or Halle Berry in MONSTERS BALL. Transformed with a 25-pound weight gain, prosthetic teeth that change the shape of her mouth, and brown contact lenses, it is, nonetheless, the body language more than the physical change that is the most startling. Theron is ferocious, tearing up the screen with a searing intensity. When Jenkins spares us none of the gruesome details of Wournos rape, her utter helplessness, it is Therons animal rage that provides the catharsis as she howls with a raw savagery that knows no limits both before and after she shoots her attacker. That rage is palpable, always lurking beneath the surface, expressed in the set of the chin and the swagger that is as much a threat as an attitude, and the eyes that are wide, watchful, and sad. But theres more to this than chewing scenery. There is a moment near the end of the film that allows for sophisticated nuance. Its when Wournos realizes that shes been betrayed once again. There is nothing in the dialogue for Theron to fall back on, only her richly expressive face that is a subtle study in understanding, grief, and, finally, a loving acceptance that things couldnt be any other way. Ricci, too, delivers a winning performance that will, no doubt, be overshadowed by Theron. There is something in the hero worship she has Selby invest in Wournos that captures both the desperate need for love and her irresistible attraction for a wilder life than shes known until now. Her awkward transformation into a wannabe wild child has genuine pathos.
By the end, Wournos has, indeed, become the MONSTER of the title. The disposable human being who never benefited from the justice system and who attempted to make a little justice for herself, however misguided. We are left not, perhaps, wanting to know Wournos personally, nor disagreeing that she should be separated from society for everyones safety, and yet, Jenkins and Theron do the seemingly impossible. They make us see the hopeful eight-year-old who was trampled on by life, let down by those she trusted, and finally left to find her own way in a world in which she never stood a chance. And the tragedy of that is nothing short of devastating.