Cinema Signal:

The Female Homicide Offender:
Serial Murder and the Case of Aileen Wuornos

. "Monster"

Charlize Theron has taken on serious roles before ("The Yards", "Trapped"), but in "Monster" she makes a move that reaches a new level. For this bio-pic with dramatic teeth, she has absorbed herself into the world and being of Aileen Wournos, a serial killer who was executed in Florida on October 2002 at age 46. She has the distinction of being credited as America's first female serial killer.

Wuornos is a woman of hard homeliness, an area to which makeup artist Toni G stepped in for a transformation of Theron's classic loveliness. The result might, arguably, be as effective as The Godfather's in providing an actor a virtually new appearance. It's the kind of transformation drug kingpins should envy.

But after that, Theron's pretty much on her own merits in portraying desperation, loneliness, nervous agitation, paranoid neurosis, the physical and mental cost of a life of highway prostitution. She launches into the role with apparent gusto, seeming to revel in a face that shows the wear of every road she panhandled. She immerses herself in the unrelieved grimness of her subject.

Picking up her story at a point where she's contemplating suicide and mostly blaming men for destroying whatever self-esteem she was ever able to muster, she meets Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a young, friendly lesbian, at a bar. Never imagining herself in those terms, she responds to Selby's unjudgemental admiration and follows what feels good, grateful for the young misfit for saving her life. When she realizes that she's fallen in love, Wuornos pretty much lives for Selby, vowing to provide her needs.

Selby takes Wuornos' admission to being a prostitute with naive acceptance, embracing the notion as though her lover confessed to being a politician. No problem. She sees her lover's profession as one that will, at least, provide the money they can live on, a position that borders on complicity. But Wuornos' love provokes her to turn straight. She primps herself up as well as she can and embarks on a series of interviews in which prospective employers see immediately through her pasted on veneer. This is a woman who can barely hide her gutter pedigree.

The attempt to become responsible ending in failure, Wuornos returns to hooking. When a john turns into a prostitute hater and knocks her unconscious, she awakens bound, manages to free herself and grab his gun, and kills him in self-defense. She takes his money and car and returns to Selby as a successful breadwinner. But the money runs out and she's got to go back out on the highway. Thinking she's backed into a more rewarding strategy for supporting herself and Selby, she shoots and robs a succession of johns, perhaps also deriving satisfaction in finding way to express pent-up rage at men. For her, for a time, it's a win-win occupation.

The clues, at first random and inconclusive, finally catch up to her. When caught, she claims self-defense in all of the murders she's accused of (6 or 7). When Selby calls her in prison and asks leading questions, street smart Wuornos realizes that the conversation is being recorded. She goes through a spectrum of emotions, betrayal, insight, until she realizes how she can do one last thing for her lover. She admits it was she who did it all. (In reality she confessed because she couldn't stand being on death row after 12 years).

Much of what is not exactly known or documented is proposed or suggested. Several of the killings are set in what are thought to be the actual places. Despite the fact that it's almost irrelevant, the attempt by director Patty Jenkins to stick as close to the known facts and most compelling theories gives the film a feeling of conviction if not complete realism. The harsh grit of the highway, bars and motels is supported with accurate tonal values by cinematographer Steve Bernstein, while BT's soundtrack numbers mirror neurotic imbalances with a pervading aural edge.

By focusing on this part of Wuornos' life to explain and exploit the story of a serial killer, many facts about what made her who she was don't make their way into the narrative. We see nothing of the desertion by her mother, abusive beatings by her grandfather, treatment by men that included rape, incest and abandonment, a pattern of cruelty that is likely to be similar among travelers down this path. What separates Wuornos from her colleagues is her proclivity to murder.

It's no surprise when a beautiful actress sheds her skin for a role -- it's what aspiring actors live for. As one saw in Hilary Swank's disguise as a man in her career-making "Boys Don't Cry", one can see in Theron's gutsy portrayal the sheer delight in the opportunity to prove her ability. She may have had in mind some recognition from the Academy come Oscar time and, in this year of considerable competition in her category, whether she wins anything or not, she has every right to expect some appreciation from her peers for what she's attempted here. The downside is that so much of it is the effect of a mask and not a fully visceral adoption of the personna. With this under her belt, Theron doesn't prove she belongs in the company of Naomi Watts, Nicole Kidman and Maria Bello.

I had the impression during one of Ricci's close shots that she was awe-struck at where Theron's neurotic impulses took her. Ricci is winsomely attractive as the somewhat kookie object of a lover's indulgences, too interested in food and other forms of appetite gratification to dwell on her partner's distorted emotional makeup.

Co-produced by Theron, Mark Damon and Clark Peterson, the unsettling drama may not thrive in a boxoffice context but is done with enough enthusiasm for the source material to merit a supportive audience.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
I've seen the movie and agree with the review
Site rating: 3

Charlize Theron will WIN the Academy Award this year, for sure... I'd bet my life on it and everyone else's.

                                                       ~~ Tim N.
[Editor's note: good call, Tim!]

Very well written
Site rating: 8

I love Charlize Theron with all my heart... Shes wonderful and Christen Ricci is great in the movie too.. Great review

                                                       ~~ Josie

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(sample frames from movies photographed
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Charlize Theron
A transformation for the killer role

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