Serial killers are a unique breed of criminal in that they aren’t motivated by financial gain or revenge but by the sheer thrill of the hunt. The typical serial killer is a white middle class male of average intelligence who holds down a regular job. What makes them so unusual, besides their chosen profession, is that they usually appear so normal – once they’re captured the typical refrain from their neighbours is “I can’t believe it; he was such a nice quiet guy”. When a woman takes on the role, society finds it even more disturbing.
Aileen Wuornos had a brutal life: her mother left Aileen in the care of her unstable father, who in turn dumped her off with Aileen’s abusive grandfather. She was sexually abused by a family friend, and after giving birth at the age of 14 Aileen was kicked out of the house. Abandoned and embittered, she literally grew up on the fringe of society, living in the woods (when she wasn’t spending time in prison for a slew of petty crimes) and turning tricks to survive. When she finally stumbled upon someone who genuinely cared about her, the attachment arguably turned her into a killer.
While she showed promise in such films as “Two Days in the Valley” and “The Devil’s Advocate” Charlize Theron has typically been utilized as window dressing. That is about to change. Theron underwent a complete transformation for the role, including gaining thirty pounds and an extreme makeunder – Bridget Jones this ain’t.
Having seen two documentaries as well as several interviews with Wuornos it is positively spooky to watch as Theron slips into character, adopting Wuornos’ body language, manner of speech and patented wild-eyed crazy look. But it goes beyond mere chameleon-like adaptations, as she delivers one of the most powerful and emotionally complex performances of the year cultivating both pathos and revulsion. Theron is so convincing in her portrayal that I forgot that it was her onscreen, a testament to her skills. The supporting cast also does impressive work.
Bruce Dern, known for playing characters on the edge, is uncharacteristically serene as Lee, Aileen’s guardian angel of sorts, lending an ear and doling out advice. Lee Tergesen (Beecher on HBO’s Oz) is chilling as Vincent, the violently abusive john who ends up being Aileen’s first victim. The other john/victims work well, which is largely due to Theron’s insistence that she not meet or rehearse with them beforehand – this leads to awkward uncomfortable exchanges between the characters which is exactly what Theron was hoping to achieve. The weak link in the film is Christina Ricci as Selby, the love interest – apparently Ricci couldn’t decide how she wanted to play the character, and vacillates between doe-eyed innocent, and manipulative harpy. Consequently her character doesn’t ring true and the relationship doesn’t feel right.
The producers deserve to be recognized for not making this a “lesbian” film – it would have been easy to spotlight the characters’ sexual orientation and crank out some cheesy jailhouse B movie. Instead, once the relationship between the main characters is established the film focuses on the story and character development. It is also important to note that the film is more faithful to the truth than many of the mainstream media reports. For example Wuornos claimed all along that she acted in self defence, and in at least one instance she appears to have been telling the truth: her first “victim” had a history of abusing women and an explosive temper, evidence that was suppressed at the time of the trial. They also make use of real dialogue – the phone call between Selby and Aileen as well as the courtroom statements are only loosely paraphrased. But creative licence isn’t perfect.
While you could make a case that Wuornos was the first women to use a gun (most female serial killers use poison as their weapon of choice) and openly prey on middle-aged male victims, she was not, as the film repeats, , America’s “first female serial killer”. It still makes for great press though. I was somewhat disappointed that they failed to mention that the two lead detectives in the case were let go when it was discovered that they were in negotiations will Hollywood agents within days of Wuornos’ arrest (her partner was also involved). Or that her lawyer didn’t exactly provide zealous or especially competent representation. Then again, the film is supposed to be about the events leading to her arrest and not her conviction.
Monster avoids the nature vs. nurture debate i.e., was Wuornos a born killer or did circumstances turn her into one or dismiss her as simply insane. The filmmakers chose instead to focus on her story, which, thanks to Theron’s astonishing portrayal, is riveting. Look for her on the Oscar podium.