As far as the US Justice System and the mainstream American press are concerned, Aileen Wuornos was little more than an ugly stain on humanity. This prostitute turned serial killer took the lives of six men, including a retired police officer. When she was executed in October 2002, cheering crowds gathered to celebrate. But first time writer-director Patty Jenkins saw beyond the media hype, and began to question whether this woman really was the monster she was painted to be.
Jenkins' movie is the product of years of interviews and correspondence with Aileen herself. While the result is gritty, uncompromising and often shocking, it is also a portrait of a tragic figure, starved of all dignity, hope or love. It is not so much a trip inside the mind of a monstrous killer as the story of a lonely, confused woman who made the wrong choices for the right reasons.
The movie opens with Wuornos on the point of suicide. Determined not to die before spending the fee from her last john, she wanders into a bar and meets the woman who will change her life forever: Selby Wall. A fragile, awkward young woman, Wall has been sent to live with an aunt in an attempt to "cure" her homosexuality. At first she elicits only hostility and suspicion from Wournos, but her sincerity and warmth quickly melt Aileen's defences. Soon Wuornos is wildly in love and determined to make a new life for herself and Selby.
But as she embarks on a breathless, frenzied stint of hooking to raise the capital for their new life, the unthinkable happens: surprised, beaten and raped by a violent john, Wuornos is forced to kill or be killed. Shaken, but unrepentant, she finds that the contents of the man's wallet takes her a lot closer to her dream of a new life than the few measly dollars she would have earned otherwise. Desperate to provide for Selby and hold onto her newfound love, Aileen makes a fatal choice - to kill the men who prey on her, rather than submit to the horrors of rape ever again.
Monster is an extraordinary piece of cinema. The dark, grainy cinematography combines with Jenkin's superbly nuanced scripting and direction to evoke a sense of unmatched realism and depth in the grey world that Aileen and Selby inhabit. But it is Theron and Ricci that push the film beyond the ordinary. While much has been made of Theron's physical transformation, it is her bravura character performance that carries the film. No amount of makeup and prosthetics could have lent Theron the depth of subtle believability she brings to the role. Yet despite the shadow that Theron's performance casts over the film, Ricci holds her own admirably. She resists the obvious pressure to become one-dimensional, and gives one of the performances of her career.
Monster is not an easy or entertaining film to watch. The ugly realism of the experience even robs us of the voyeuristic thrill of watching a "serial killer" at work. But at the same time it is an intensely rewarding experience. On our journey into the heart of a "monster" instead of horror we find love, love that is far more real and sincere than anything Hollywood romances seem able to produce.
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