Monster


Robin Clifford 
Monster, Charlize Theron
Laura Clifford 

Aileen Carol Wuornos (Charlize Theron) was serial raped by her father's best friend when she was only 8-years old. Her mother died when she was 13 and 'Lee' turned to prostitution to survive. She has always lived a harsh, lonely, abused life cruising Florida's highways getting picked up by johns until she meets innocent, needs-to-be-loved Selby (Christina Ricci), and Aileen's life is to about to dramatically changed in debut helmer Patty Jenkins's "Monster."

Robin:
Charline Theron has received a boatload of pre-release publicity for her decision to take on the role of the woman who was a rarity in the crime world - a female serial killer. Aileen Wuornos, I remember from a "60 Minutes" piece made not long after her arrest, began her string of killings in 1989 and, over two years, murdered seven men. Wuornos had a long-time history of petty crimes and prostitution and claimed that the abuse inflicted on her by the johns she solicited forced her to self-defense. The courts decided differently and she was convicted of several of the murders and sentenced to death. She was executed in Florida's electric chair in 2002.

Newcomer Jenkins starts off her version of Aileen Wuornos's story showing the woman to be a tough street hooker who will do anything, even hitching on Florida's lonely I-75, to pick up tricks. As often as not she is abused by the johns and her past is shown as a sad, hopeless existence. When one of her customers dumps her along side the road in the pouring rain, she makes her way to a bar, a lesbian establishment, where she is approached by Selby. Lee is belligerent, at first, proclaiming that she's not gay but soon an attraction forms between the hardened hooker and the Bible Belt innocent.

But, she has to earn money, especially with two mouths to feed, and Aileen returns to the side of the road. The trick she picks up drives her far off the highway, away from prying eyes, where he, with startling violence, punches her out. She awakens, severely beaten and bound, with the man screams invectives at her as he rapes her with a tire iron. During her struggle, she breaks free, finds the gun that she always carries and blows the bastard away. She dumps the body, takes his car and money and returns to Selby with her stolen loot. A pattern begins and the increasingly deranged Wuornos uses her gun again and again, meting out vigilante justice and robbing her victims of their cash and cars. As in the story of the real Aileen Wuornos, she is eventually captured, tried, convicted and, 12 years later, executed.

Charlize Theron, heavily made up to resemble the real Aileen Wuornos, whose face was badly burned as a child, creates a character that has the looks, manners and moves of her subject. Therone, gaining 30 pounds and talking around prosthetic teeth, does a decent job in bringing a whitewashed version of the killer to life The film, though, feels like a fabrication based on a true story. Jenkins makes the statement, early on, that Aileen was the product of a horrendous, abusive childhood where she was left alone at an early age and her only recourse was prostitution. This cause-and-effect tale, where the abused Aileen is forced to kill to save her own life, paints the picture of her as victim, not perpetrator. As the number of killings mount, Wuornos becomes increasingly detached from reality, eventually being arrested.

Theron has been getting a groundswell of approval for her performance as Wuranos. While she is good in the role, I did not find it great, with the makeup and mannerisms taking control over any development of her character. The makeup, the thing that is supposed to help develop Theron's Aileen, brings too much attention to itself, looking like a serious case of freckles instead of old facial burns. In fact, for much of the beginning of  "Monster," I was distracted by it. It is a brave and unglamorous performance by Charlize, though.

Christina Ricci is unbelievable as naïf Selby. She is the innocent who begs to be taken care of, even demanding it, and is part of why Aileen acted as she did. Ricci, with her doe eyes and waif-like looks, is an attractive foil to Aileen but her character doesn't ring true. There is little by way of other supporting characters, although Bruce Dern is effective as the one man that Aileen trusts as his Thomas shows her real kindness and affection. Pruitt Taylor Vince does a nice job in the small role as the first-time john whose obvious innocence saves his life.

"Monster" tries to paint a human face on a person who some might call a victim of society while others might proclaim her as a real monster. (The title comes from an amusement park ride, by the way.) It is a good calling card for Charlize Theron. I give it a B-.

Laura:
Aileen 'Lee' Wuornos (Charlize Theron, "The Italian Job") was the product of a broken, abusive home who became pregnant at age fourteen and turned to prostitution soon thereafter.  In 1986 she was contemplating suicide until she realized that if she didn't spend the five dollar bill she had, she would have serviced a john for free, so she entered a Florida gay bar and her life changed.  The younger, lesbian Selby Wall (Christina Ricci, "Anything Else") became Lee's reason for living until a brutal rape made her begin striking out at her clients, shooting seven of them to death.  Lee had become a "Monster."

Charlize Theron smashes her glamorous image in order to prove her acting chops and "Monster" will be opening new doors for her.  Initially, Toni G's ("Planet of the Apes") makeup and Art Sakamoto's prosthetic teeth seem to mummify the actress's face around the mouth area, calling attention to the amazing transformation (Theron also gained 20-30 pounds for the role), but as the film progresses, Theron's facial expressions relax and the illusion is complete.

Debuting feature writer/director Patty Jenkins's choice of title is ironic as her look at the making of a serial killer is compassionate towards a woman who struck out after being beaten down all her life.  (The title is also refers to one of Wuornos's happier moments riding an amusement park ride called Monster.)  Jenkins partially fictionalizes the character of Wuornos's lover (the real woman was Tyria Moore, described as 'a short, hefty redhead with a truck driver’s gait' who has raised lawsuits against previous filmmakers), making her a waifish, needy, demanding child running from a religious family demanding her 'normalcy.'  She then posits that it was Lee's promises to provide a home for Selby that pushed her over the edge, committing murders after the initial, retaliatory one for financial gain, convincing herself that her pickups meant her harm until she even crossed that line.

Theron's transformation isn't just about makeup and weight gain.  Her body language has changed so that she lumbers about like a trucker, inner rage making her movements quick and stiff.  Her voice has a lower, gruff timbre.  The real Wuornos was known for explosions of profanity, and Theron convinces in several scenes when society dares to question her.  Her chemistry with Ricci is akin to a average guy who's gotten a trophy bimbo and can't believe his luck, constantly battling the need to question his girlfriends's dubious actions with a desire to smooth things over, keep the status quo. She puts up a wall with her johns after the rape, grudgingly showing an innate decency sparing a scared first-timer (Pruitt Taylor Vince, "Identity"), then cornered anguish striking down a decent man.  Theron's voiceover narration is also effective, humorously introducing herself under dire conditions, ironically signing out with universal platitudes meant for everyone but her.

Ricci's character, though, is written to act in ways that explain Wuornos's behavior, rather than having any interior motivation of her own and Ricci does not rise above the problem.  (An Internet search on the fictitious Selby Wall finds 'Selby wall,' a product designed for 'demanding environments where dimensional stability and crack bridging is crucial to durability issue such as abrasion impact and chemical resistance.')  Selby Wall progresses from emotionally needy to spoiled brat to self-preserving stoolie.  In truth, Wuornos's girlfriend did cooperate with police in order to obtain a confession, but she also worked while the duo were together.  Support includes Bruce Dern ("Masked & Anonymous") as Thomas, the manager of the storage units where Lee keeps her possessions and her only real friend, Annie Corley ("21 Grams," "Seabiscuit) good as Donna, Selby's concerned guardian and Scott Wilson ("Pearl Harbor") as a pivotal victim.

Jenkins's production is as ugly as her subject matter, recreating the cheap accommodations, loud bars and strip malls of Florida's dispossessed and transients. The soundtrack is peppered with the garish rock of the time (Lee and Selby's first kiss is set to a Journey song over the speakers of an indoor rollerskating rink).  Editor Jane Kurson ("Bed of Roses") edits the first murder with an almost subliminal frame of Theron in closeup looking bloody and bestial - a monster, but a continuity problem mars the same scene when Lee emerges from the rape fully clothed.  While Toni G's makeup is impressive, it lacks a degree of subtlety. His decision to shave Theron's eyebrows is distracting (the real Wuornos's eyebrows had a dramatic upwards slant which mirrored the downward lines around her mouth) and the blotchiness of her skin is too pronounced at times.

Patty Jenkins's "Monster" is an noteworthy debut that questions common perceptions of serial killers while showcasing the heretofore unknown talents of its star.

B

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