She did it for love. That's what filmmaker Patty Jenkins would have viewers believe about Aileen Wuornos in Monster, an uncomfortably sympathetic portrait of a serial killer.
Using some of the alibis Wuornos later recanted on Florida's death row, Jenkins defines several victims as deserving their grisly ends. Even in cases when Wuornos acts in cold blood, the movie regularly follows up with something to suggest that she wasn't bad, just misunderstood. I can't imagine what the victims' survivors or law enforcement officials who caught her after seven murders would feel watching this film. Jenkins doesn't seem to care, seeing Wuornos only as the product of poor upbringing and an obsessive romance.
As much as I admire Charlize Theron's transformation from gorgeous movie star to Wuornos' roughness, and as effectively as Jenkins stages respectable snuff sequences, sitting through Monster made me wish the theater restroom had a shower stall available to wash away the dirty feeling of being entertained by a whitewash of evil. This movie, in effect, makes the audience an accomplice, hoping for the best to happen to a criminal who in reality dealt out the worst.
An introductory flashback to Wuornos' youth establishes Jenkins' theory of an abusive childhood, a promiscuous adolescence and an inability to emotionally connect with anyone. That's a common history among many murderers. Jump forward to Theron as Wuornos, homeless and upset, sitting under a highway overpass contemplating suicide. In five minutes Jenkins has established Wuornos as someone to be pitied, without considering that if her life had ended under that overpass, seven men might still be alive today.
Wuornos doesn't pull the trigger, instead going to a gay bar for a beer with $5 earned from a sex act. Calling herself Lee, she meets Selby Wall (changing the name of Wuornos' lover, Tyria Moore), played by Christina Ricci, a casting decision that seems inappropriate. Moore was a tough, masculine-looking redhead; Ricci's doe eyes, smooth features and childish rebellion make the character easier to like. We see what Wuornos sees in her, and it isn't only sexual, so what Wuornos does to keep her is, to the movie's way of thinking, justified.
Wuornos resumes prostituting _ her last johns, she promises _ and persuades Selby to run away from home to shack up in a seedy motel. Then the money dries up, and Wuornos goes back to hitchhiking for tricks to keep Selby happy. One customer becomes her first victim after a brutal rape, echoing the reason Wuornos initially gave for shooting Clearwater businessman Richard Mallory and leaving his body near Interstate 95 in Volusia County. The real Wuornos later said she wasn't raped, but that doesn't suit Jenkins' agenda. There's no doubt that the unnamed movie character gets what he deserves.
That can be said about most of the victims in Jenkins' film. Only one appears to be a Samaritan helping a hitchhiker. The rest are cruising for sex, cheating on wives or, in one instance, demanding that Wuornos call him "daddy" during sex, giving her a reason to kill someone she perceives as a child molester. One victim simply says the wrong thing, triggering Wuornos' childhood memories, the movie's rationale for her.
Only once is Wuornos portrayed as distinctly, murderously callous, strutting around a doomed john and boasting about what she'll do to him. If more of Monster contained such horror committed by Wuornos and not just toward her, Jenkins might be closer to the truth. (Even Wuornos declared when rejecting a second appeal: "I'm one who seriously hates human life and would kill again." Jenkins never portrays her as such.)
Meanwhile, Wuornos' bond with Selby gets stronger. Their first embrace is played with puppy love theatrics, in a roller rink as they skate to Journey's Don't Stop Believin'. When the women are shown making love, Tommy James and the Shondells' Crimson & Clover makes it seem more like prom night than a porn film. Jenkins never misses a chance to remind us these kids are in love, as if that's justification for what Wuornos does.
The romantic angle shoves other dramatic possibilities out of the way. The police investigation leading to her abrupt arrest is mostly ignored. Nothing is mentioned about how cops and lawyers jockeyed for book and movie deals about a rare female serial killer before an arrest was made. Wuornos' frequent, profane outbursts in court are forgotten. Of course, there's no time to contemplate the impact on victims' families.
Monster, however, is a well-made film, despite the position it takes on Wuornos. Most of the credit should go to Theron, who is unrecognizable in appearance and demeanor, a far cry from her usual glamor roles. Every twitch, each time she defiantly juts her hips, is evidence of a meticulously conceived portrayal honed to remarkable ease. Yes, this is the best acting job, male or female, of any eligible for awards right now. But it's a case of loving the sinner while despising the sin. What Monster lacks in conscience, Theron almost makes up for with a performance for the ages.
Director: Patty Jenkins
Cast: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Scott Wilson, Marc Macaulay
Screenplay: Patty Jenkins
Rating: R; brutal violence, harsh profanity, sexual situations, nudity
Running time: 111 min.