Sunday, May 19, 2013

Monster (2003)

Director: Patty Jenkins                                Writer: Patty Jenkins
Film Score: Brian Transeau                          Cinematography: Steve Bernstein
Starring: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern and Annie Corley

I really had no expectations going into Monster, as I had no knowledge about the film other than references to the great performance by Charlize Theron. I was a fan, of course, from her breakout role in Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do, and other great performances in The Italian Job and The Devil’s Advocate. But even the acknowledgement at the beginning of the film saying it was based on a true story, didn’t prepare me for the powerful but peculiar performance she delivers. It wasn’t until afterward when I watched the documentary on the film that I understood she was emulating a real person, one of the few female serial killers in history: Aileen “Lee” Wuornos.

It’s a heartbreaking story, and the label of serial killer really seems unfair. Patty Jenkins’ screenplay was based on interviews with Lee’s friends, but primarily on the numerous letters that she wrote to her friends from prison. It’s here where the film really hits home, because a lot of the narration and dialog is based on Lee’s actual words. Though she was repeatedly sexually abused as a child and became pregnant at thirteen, the audience doesn’t learn of this until much later in the film, when she’s telling it to another character. Until then, we can only be stunned by the blasé manner in which she talks about turning tricks as a street prostitute. At the same time, while she talks as if it’s nothing, we can see in Theron’s performance an undercurrent of bitterness and shame.

The plot is incredibly odd, primarily because it’s a true story. No one would write a story like this because it would be too unbelievable. Leave it to real life to provide the bizarre. While sitting under a freeway overpass in the rain, Theron decides to kill herself with a gun she has, but can’t do it until she spends the last five dollars she has. At a bar she meets Christina Ricci, who is obviously extremely lonely and she manages to ease Theron’s homophobia long enough to spent time with her at the bar and then offer her a place to sleep. Ricci, we learn, is from an extremely strict religious family and because she is a lesbian has sought refuge in her aunt and uncle’s house. The aunt and the uncle, however, are of a similar religious bent and little better. The two fall in love and, while Theron is out turning tricks she is nearly killed, beginning a long descent into darkness.

Theron’s appearance is dramatically altered and is, at times, eerie. She evidentally gained a good deal of weight for the role and the makeup, a set of false teeth and textured skin, completely transform her. In literary terms, the film is certainly a tragedy. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Wuornos would have had any chance at all for a normal life. And in an Academy Award winning performance, Charlize Theron allows us to see that in Wuornos’s own words. It’s a disturbing film, moving but with a deep undercurrent of futility at the same time. We see her try, ala Erin Brockovich, to get a job, but we know it’s never going to happen. And what eventually transpires, while we can’t condone it, we can certainly better understand it thanks to Patty Jenkins. Monster is a powerful film and one that confronts us to wonder who the real monster is, the killer or the society that created her.

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