Film/DVD: review

Monster

Monster
Directed by Patty Jenkins
 
2003, US — 109 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Biography / Suspense

With a shattering performance by Charlize Theron, this film digs beneath the surface of serial killer Aileen Wuornos to find the human being behind the myth.

Review

ImageIn Monster, Charlize Theron (The Cider House Rules, The Italian Job) explodes in a performance of stunning depth as convicted serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Theron deservedly won every national and international award for best actress of 2003; she also co-produced this film. She and writer/director Patty Jenkins, making her feature film debut, explore the deepest emotional recesses of Wuornos. A severely abused and cast-off woman, barely scraping by as a highway prostitute, Wuornos falls passionately in love with naive, young Selby Wall (Christina Ricci, The Opposite of Sex, Sleepy Hollow). Desperately seeking honest employment, and the dream of a decent life with Selby, time and again Wuornos finds her hopes crushed. When she reaches the breaking point, no one could imagine the nightmare that awaited the seven men she saw as standing in the way of her happiness.

Monster is so powerful – at times it moved me to tears, and I don't often cry over murderers – because Theron and Jenkins, with astonishing insight, show us the volcanic fullness of Wuornos.

ImageShe is not a sensationalized "damsel of death," as the tabloids dubbed her, reduced to a list of atrocities, duly tried, convicted, and sentenced. Theron's monumental performance lets us understand Wuornos, in all of her complexity and twisted humanity, even as Jenkins's dead-on filmmaking allows us to experience her emotions ourselves.

This is rarely a visually flashy film – although some shots are truly evocative (as we will see below) – and that understated style meshes perfectly with the intensity of Theron's acting. Together writer/director and actress create a unique quality of openness which allows us to enter ever more deeply, perhaps even in spite of ourselves, into Wuornos's world of pain, frustration and desperate – heartbreaking – love. Monster never glorifies Wuornos, but it does show us the complicated truth of her life.

Jenkins first considered this project, at the time of Wuornos's trial, while she was an art student at New York City's Cooper Union. She was disturbed by the press reducing Wuornos to a caricature of a "man-hating lesbian serial killer," despite her protests that she killed her "johns" only in self-defense when they attacked her first. Jenkins thought she "looked like this wounded, terrified animal – who had clearly done what she'd done, but crying in the courtroom as her girlfriend testified against her. It was just unbelievably rich with tragedy." After reflecting on the project for a decade, Jenkins at last felt ready to make her first feature, which would also allow her to make a character-driven film in the tradition of, as she noted, In Cold Blood, Badlands, and Taxi Driver. She persuaded Charlize Theron, a native of South Africa who had previously played "nice women," to join the production. They were meticulous in their research about Wuornos, reading and viewing all of the available books and videotapes, gaining access to her never-before-seen private letters, visiting the places and people she knew. In fact, most of the film was shot at the actual locations, and many of the extras had had some contact with Wuornos.

ImageThe authenticity of the film is remarkable: you can almost smell the sweat, cigarettes and whiskey... and feel the polyester. But those countless details are mostly important because they help to ground Theron's performance in a very specific time and place. At times she rises to genuinely tragic heights, but never do we feel we are watching some self-conscious latter-day riff on Medea or Lady Macbeth (although we can hope that at some point Theron will also play those roles). Wuornos is real, and staring us down.

ImageJenkins, with her background as a painter, uses some subtle techniques to raise her film far above a mere historical reconstruction. She employs a gritty style, but her use of saturated color – especially blue – gives the film a slightly hyperreal quality. The color is beautiful, but at times there's purposefully just a bit too much of it, almost as if it's about to burst. And that's just the style which Wuornos's story, and emotions, needs.

She parallels that heightened, yet subtle, use of color with a densely-textured soundtrack. She makes inspired use of both popular songs of the day – most notably Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" under the meltingly romantic scene between Wuornos and Selby at the roller-skating rink – and a powerful original score by BT (Go, The Fast and the Furious; he was Brian Transeau before becoming an acronym). There is an interesting documentary on the DVD about BT's score, and how Jenkins worked with him to get exactly the effects the film needed. To take just one example, Jenkins and BT decided that during the first murder scene the emotional, and hence musical, climax was not the actual killing but rather the earlier wordless moment when Wuornos realized that, trapped, she had no alternative but to kill or die herself. Melodically but viscerally, the music expresses what Wuornos could not say.

ImageThe film also makes intriguing use of a broader social context, in its suggestion of how "traditional values," including conservative religious ones, played a critical part in Wuornos's fate. We have to wonder how different Wuornos's life might have been if, after being repeatedly raped as a young girl, her father had treated her with compassion instead of beating her for "sinning." We see the form the adult Wuornos's personal relationship with God in the unnerving climactic scene where she is forced to confess to Selby that she's killed several men – desperately claiming that all of the murders were in self-defense. Horrified, Selby says, "You can't kill people!" Wuornos, her hand raised up to heaven, says, "I'm good with the Lord. I'm fine with Him."

ImageLess histrionic, but no less devastating, is the effect of Selby's self-proclaimed "religious family" on their daughter. We first see her as a confused 18-year-old lesbian who has been thrown out of her parents' home because she tried to a kiss a girl at church. Christina Ricci brings out all of Selby's contradictions, from her resiliency to her passion to her self-loathing. (Ricci is an exceptionally versatile young actress, who can play roles everything from the sweetly spunky little girl in the live-action Casper the Friendly Ghost to the brilliantly acid-tongued lead in the brilliant comedy The Opposite of Sex). During the tender but spiky love scene at the roller rink, Selby can't help but blurt out, even as she makes clear her passion for Wuornos, that "maybe my dead will take me back – and save my soul."

One can only wonder how differently things might have turned out, for everyone involved, if instead of condemnation Wuornos's and Selby's families – despite the radical differences of their respective daughters' "sins" – had offered respect, healing and love.

ImageMy favorite shot in the film highlights much of what makes Monster extraordinary on so many levels. During the heartbreaking scene in which Selby and Wuornos have to part, we have the overwhelming emotions of the two women – but they can't even begin to express what we know they feel. As a visual counterpart, Jenkins places them in a stark but evocative location. They are – literally and figuratively – backed up against a blank, rough wall. Wedged into the left of the frame is what passes for "freedom:" in deep focus we see a bit of street on which a bus leaves and people come to wait for the next one. That is all that Selby can look forward to; but after what she's done, knowing that the law is about to close in, even that narrow sliver is more freedom than Wuornos will ever know again.

Through the most unlikely characters and situations, Monster reminds us – at times overwhelmingly – of what it means to love, to be human.

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Crew

  • Written and Directed by Patty Jenkins
  • Produced by Charlize Theron, Mark Damon, Clark Peterson, Donald Kushner & Brad Wyman
  • Executive Producers: Sammy Lee, Meagan Riley-Grant, Stewart Hall, Andreas Grosch & Andreas Schmid
  • Cinematography by Steven Bernstein
  • Edited by Arthur Coburn & Jane Kurson
  • Production Design by Edward T. McAvoy
  • Art Direction by Orvis Rigsby
  • Costume Design by Rhona Meyers
  • Sound by John Bires & 14 others
  • Original music by BT
  • Charlize Theron's Makeup Artist: Toni G

Cast

  • Charlize Theron as Aileen
  • Christina Ricci as Selby
  • Bruce Dern as Thomas
  • Lee Tergesen as Vincent Corey
  • Annie Corley as Donna
  • Pruitt Taylor Vince as Gene the Stuttering "John"
  • Marco St. John as Evan the Undercover "John"
  • Marc Macaulay as Will the Daddy "John"
  • Scott Wilson as Horton the Last "John"
  • Rus Blackwell as Cop
  • Tim Ware as Chuck
  • Stephan Jones as Lawyer
  • Brett Rice as Charles
  • Kaitlin Riley as Teenage Aileen
  • Cree Ivey as 7-Year-Old Aileen
  • Catherine Mangan as Justy
  • Magdalena Manville as Bar Lap Girl
  • T. Robert Pigott as Bartender
  • Romonda Shaver as Employment Agent
  • Glenn R. Wilder as Restaurant Manager
  • Elaine Stebbins as Wife at Accident
  • Kane Hodder as Undercover Cop (trivia buffs take note: Hodder is best known for playing Jason in the Friday the 13th series, the seventh through tenth movies, 1988-2001)

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DVD

Columbia TriStar's DVD offers excellent image and sound, and some interesting supplements, including in-depth interviews with writer/director Patty Jenkins and composer BT. I also enjoyed the hands-on sound mixing demo, which lets you re-mix an excerpt from the scene at the amusement park.

DVD Details

Reviewed August 1, 2004

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