So once again we have survived.

Monster

tn_monsterI’m about 13 years late on this one, but it turns out there’s a reason Charlize Theron got an Oscar for MONSTER. Jeez. Playing Aileen Wuornos, “the first female serial killer,” she not only transforms herself, she transforms Wuernos.

That first part got all the attention. Theron was a well known actress by that point, but in movies like 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY, THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, REINDEER GAMES and THE ITALIAN JOB her acting chops usually took back seat to her hotness. Here she wore fake teeth, bleached her eyebrows and had her skin looking freckled and rough, a pretty decent likeness of the real woman and (though it looks natural in the movie) extreme enough to get a bunch of attention. I actually think the most drastic part is the hair, though. The way the movie tells it she has the hair of a butch lesbian before she even discovers that she is one.

This is a love story. Aileen, going by Lee, decides rather than kill herself one rainy day she’ll take her last five bucks to a bar and get a beer. And this lonely young woman Selby (Christina Ricci, CASPER) approaches her, talks to her, buys her a pitcher. Aileen protests at first – “What is this, a gay place?” she had snorted to the bartender earlier – but she can’t really pass up a person being nice to her. Too rare.

Aileen’s had a real rough life. A prologue, playing like nostalgic home movies, shows her exposing and prostituting herself at a young age. This of course means she was raped and abused. Now she’s living out of a storage unit, getting beat up by boyfriends and johns alike, spending alot of quality time sitting under the overpass with a gun to her head thinking it all over. It seems like her only friend is Thomas (Bruce Dern, THE DRIVER), who runs the storage unit, is lenient about her being behind on rent, and gives her a beer and most of his ham sandwich. He’s so nice you worry he’s gonna try to pull something and disappoint her horribly. I wonder if maybe he was supposed to and they realized that would be too bleak. Or maybe they wanted to have one man in the movie who doesn’t try to exploit her.

So Aileen hangs out with Selby, who’s clearly younger and lives with a nice Christian family after her old man kicked her out for trying to kiss a girl. And now they catch her sneaking this gruff, weathered prostitute into her teen girl type bedroom.

mp_monsterTheron carries herself kinda masculine, swears and grunts and does a Southern accent. She has an angry, fuck you attitude, but Selby brings out her positive side. This plays as a real romance. She cleans herself in a gas station bathroom sink with somebody knocking angrily on the door, but she spends extra time getting her hair just right, smiling at herself in the mirror. Everything but lip synch oldies into a brush. She takes her to the rollerskating rink. It’s open, so it’s not as awkward as when Rocky brings Adrian to the ice skating rink.

The trouble comes from another romantic gesture. Selby is about to be sent back to her father, and Aileen wants to rent a hotel to have a night alone with her before she goes. She tries to hustle up the cash in a day, taking john after john. It’s kinda like one of those montages where they do car washes and bake sales and collect cans and pawn all their shit to get enough money to save the youth center or whatever and they’re real optimistic and energized but at the end they count it up and it’s just not enough and they get depressed. It’s like that but it’s a different method of raising money and then at the end instead of it not being enough this john handcuffs her and beats her up so she gets his gun and kills him. Then she does a poor job of explaining herself when she shows up hours late for her date, in the car she stole from the dead guy. But she convinces Selby to run away with her.

She tries to get out of prostitution. There’s a painful montage of her interviewing for jobs. She seems to naively believe she can be whatever she sets her mind to, that all the jobs are open to her now that she wants them. Selby doesn’t want to tell her she’s delusional. Because of our familiarity with this kind of sequence the various bosses who crush her dreams seem like snobs keeping a regular woman down. But of course they should not hire her. She’s applying for jobs that require skills she has no clue about, and also whatever elitist assumptions they might’ve made about her are probly less than the truth that she’s a prostitute on the run from a recent murder.

So it’s back to hooking and a series of decreasingly convincing justifications for killing johns and stealing their cars. I don’t know if she realizes it’s a reverse of so many serial killers who get away with it for a while because their victims are prostitutes and are not as protected by society as some other people who get killed. In a way this works the same, because your sympathy for the innocent people killed is mixed with a little “ew, he was hiring her to have sex with him.” But, I don’t know, maybe there’s a double standard, because she got caught after about a year.

It’s kind of a female-female version of the murder spree road movie. Usually it’s a guy who’s out of control, and feels he’s in some sort of rebellion against society, and has a poor smitten girlfriend hopelessly devoted to him.

In both movie and reality, Wuornos may have really believed her victims were going to rape her and that it was self defense, but it seems to only be true in the first of her seven murders. In the movie when she’s sentenced she says, “Thank you, judge. And may you rot in hell! Sending a raped woman to death! And you all, you’re a bunch of scum that’s what you are!”

I don’t know if that’s a real quote or not, but that’s the Wuornos we knew before, the one that made outrageous outbursts in court and interviews, often blaming society for her troubles:

“You sabotaged my ass, society. And the cops, and the system… a raped woman got executed. It was used for books and movies and shit. You’re an inhumane bunch of fuckin’ livin’ bastards and bitches and you’re gonna get your asses nuked in the end, and pretty soon it’s comin’!”

Nick Broomfield’s documentary AILEEN WUORNOS: THE SELLING OF A SERIAL KILLER shows us what happened after MONSTER, as a bizarre group of characters exploited her case while she just wanted to go to the chair and get it over with. (When she finally did, shortly before MONSTER came out, her last words referenced the movie INDEPENDENCE DAY.) She comes off as compelling and sort of sympathetic just because the other people in the movie are such scumbags. And we hear what a rough life she had. But Theron’s performance goes further. She’s full of shit and there have been plenty of other people who lived terrible lives without having to kill a bunch of people. But also she can be sweet and she tries to be this protector and provider and she demeans herself to feel like she’s bringing home the bacon for this girl she cares about. People, she reminds us, are not unstoppable forces of evil. They always turn out to just be humans.

This was the feature debut of writer-director Patty Jenkins. She won the Independent Spirit Award for best first feature (also nominated for best first screenplay) and of course she deserves credit for directing Theron’s Oscar winning performance, but it didn’t immediately launch her into a big movie career. She found work in TV, directing episodes of Arrested Development, Entourage and The Killing. Eventually Natalie Portman convinced Marvel to hire her for THOR: THE DARK WORLD, which would’ve been the biggest budget live action movie ever directed by a woman (topping Kathryn Bigelow for K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER) had she not left for “creative differences.” Portman was thinking about quitting acting to raise her kid, and they lured her with the involvement of Jenkins. Reportedly Jenkins was actually fired, and Portman only found out about it by reading it in the news, so she was not happy!

But now Jenkins is directing WONDER WOMAN so I think she’ll get that record. MONSTER being a small true crime drama about horrible murders it’s hard to say how it will translate into the satin tights fighting for your rights and what not. But we do know that Jenkins can make a movie that’s all about characters and acting, which is a plus. It will give some emotional grounding to the invisible plane in my opinion.

 

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 19th, 2016 at 11:17 am and is filed under Crime, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

8 Responses to “Monster”

  1. Nicely done, Vern (for some reason I was half-expecting your next review would be of CRIMINAL). Like BOYS DON’T CRY and WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, MONSTER is one of those movies I’ve seen only once, and was impressed by it, and at the same time a part of me wishes I hadn’t seen it. Markedly harsh, mostly bleak, and somewhat of an effort to get through.

    At the time of its theatrical release, Roger Ebert called Theron’s performance one of the greatest ever committed to film, and I’d say that’s on point. Nowadays the movie geek cognoscenti takes it for granted that a Charlize Theron performance is gonna be rock solid or close to it, but (as you pointed out) prior to MONSTER that was not the case at all. I read long ago that Patty Jenkins was utterly convinced Theron could pull off the role of Aileen Wuornos, even though Theron herself wasn’t so certain. Smart woman.

    That’s the weird thing about Theron’s career arc as an actor. It wasn’t like Matthew McConaughey (also a pretty face/middling actor), who made a conscious effort to better himself and gradually succeeded. With Theron, her performance in MONSTER was the awakening, almost like the flip of a switch. Interesting to think there was a great actor inside her lying dormant up until then.

  2. The Original Paul

    April 19th, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    I thought you’d already reviewed this one, Vern. I largely agree with you – it’s really good, and Theron deserved her Oscar.

    I got a few pangs from this one, and I guess I would from the Broomfield documentary as well, from your review. It’s been a while since I saw MONSTER, and I’ve only watched it once (when it first came out), but from what I can remember it focussed mostly on the relationship between Wuornos and Selby. And from your review it read as though the Broomfield documentary focussed mostly on the cast of sharks circling Wuornos after her arrest and conviction, and not so much on Wuornos’ own crimes. And as tragic as her own story is – she’s still a manipulative sociopath who killed a lot of people. I read about her after watching MONSTER, and what struck me the most was that almost everything she’d said was self-justification – nothing that suggested remorse, guilt, or even self-comprehension.

    It’s interesting to compare this film with INTO THE ABYSS. The two killers from that film – especially the one who was eventually executed – both showed no remorse for what they’d done. The executed criminal’s words were almost all either outright lies or self-justification. In Herzog’s film, even though the basic premise is that the death sentence is unjustifiable, he makes is crystal clear what kind of a person the criminal he’s interviewing is, and what he’d done. I didn’t feel that MONSTER necessarily managed to do the same thing; but could it ever have done? MONSTER is a dramatisation of a story, not something that we hear from the people who were actually involved in it. And in addition to that, we can never truly know both “sides” of that story, because Wuornos’ victims are dead. They can’t have a voice of their own. Whereas with the crime that was discussed at length in INTO THE ABYSS, there’s no question that the victim of it was just a woman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    MONSTER is a very good film and a great dramatisation of a tragic story. I did come out of it wondering a little just how one-sided it was, or how fair it possibly could be, when the basis of so much of it depended on the account of a serial murderer. I guess there’s just no way to know for sure how accurate it actually was.

  3. I seem to always come back to this but I genuinely love this film’s score, possibly more than the film itself. Theron is great don’t get me wrong (Ricci is as well, you felt sorry for her from the beginning), but that soundtrack is I always stop to listen to when I’ve got my iPod on shuffle, especially the love theme.

    Monster (2003 OST) - Ferris Wheel Love Theme

    Bt Soundtrack- Monster- Ferris Wheel Love Theme

    I actually heard a bit of the score in a Washington, D.C. record store about a year after it came out. I asked what it was and made a mental note to check it out, which I did many years later.

  4. I read a review of this when it came out that said it looked like Charlize washed her hair in chip-pan fat, which for some reason has stuck with me ever since.

    It’s a great film but I’ve not seen it in years, so have nothing much to say beyond how I’m looking forward to Wonder Woman. Gal was good in BvS and Jenkins is great

  5. This movie is the reason that Charlize Theron is my favourite actress, yet it’s such a tough watch I’ve only seen it once.

    Seriously though, she can play anything.

    She could play Shaft.

  6. I agree with Amazing Larry it was so unexpected to see the Charlize that was always lying dormant but Jenkins is a genius for bringing her out to play. Up until this point this woman was kinda a joke to me as an actress and watching this was a role of a dice. I watched it with someone who really loved HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and swore up and down to me that this was the great companion piece he was waiting for.

    That was like 12 years ago and while I do think HENRY is even more of a haunting picture because of perspective and grit I don’t think that MONSTER complimenting it well could really be debated. Charlize was definitely haunting within herself when it came to this performance for which she received all the well earned accolades and Ricci’s character was disturbing in her naiveness. Again it’s been 12 years since I last saw it but I can never shake how disturbing yet sympathetic their entire dynamic is. Brilliant stuff from a great director with an upstanding cast. It’s not one I have ever really revisited nor do I think it really warrants any regular revisits but I don’t think it’s a shot in the dark either to state that it was one of the first true genuine cinema classics of the 21st century either.

    I mean it speaks volumes that just off the strength of this one alone WONDER WOMAN is one of my most anticipated movies and not because Wonder Woman is one of my favorite fictional characters (which he is).

  7. *roll of a dice

  8. *she is

    geesh I really need some coffee right now.

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