Judge Patrick Bromley calls this a "sad, beautiful film."
People kill each other every day. And for what? Hmm? For politics. For religion. And they're heroes! No…no…there's a lot of shit I can't do anymore, but killing's not one of them.
The story of Aileen Wuornos, the woman labeled as "America's first female serial killer," comes to DVD in Patty Jenkins's Monster. Is all the hype—not to mention an Oscar© for star Charlize Theron—justified? Ummm…yep.
Facts of the Case
As Monster begins, drifter and prostitute Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron, Trial and Error, Reindeer Games) is looking back on her life as she contemplates suicide. Deciding she ought to spend her last five dollars before doing herself in, she wanders into a local bar—a gay bar, unbeknownst to Aileen. It's there that she meets Selby (Christina Ricci, Buffalo '66, Pumpkin), and despite the fact that she's not gay, Aileen decides she's had enough of men—it's time to give a woman a try. While trying to earn the money to get a hotel room for her and Selby, Aileen is viciously raped and beaten by a john. In a panicked rage, she shoots and kills him.
It's the moment that pushes Aileen over the edge. Though she convinces Selby to leave her family and take off, it's not long before the two are utterly broke and slowly starving. Aileen tries to go back to hooking, but memories and rage resurface and she finds herself killing once again. Slowly, though, the killings are no longer about pain—they simply become the easiest way to get money. Aileen even tells Selby what she's up to; she confesses to the first crime, and though the subsequent murders are never exactly spelled out, Selby suspects something is up every time Aileen comes home in a new car. It's not until she senses the cops closing in around them, however, that Selby finally decides to distance herself from Aileen's crimes and turn her in—and that's how, after the murders of seven men, police finally managed to catch Aileen Wuornos, America's "first female serial killer."
It happens when they roller skate. Aileen and Selby take to floor, skating and holding hands, as the opening piano chords of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" blare on the soundtrack. As they stare into one another's eyes, preparing themselves for that first kiss, we see fear in the eyes of Aileen Wuornos for the first time. Aileen gives in—for a brief moment, she trusts someone—and as the two kiss, the outside world melts away; it might be the first human connection this woman has ever made. For me, this is the moment that Patty Jenkins's Monster became a great film.
The movie isn't looking to excuse the crimes of Aileen Wuornos. What it wants to do is present another side to a fairly well-known story, and show us that despite her crimes, Wuornos is not a Monster. She's tragic, really—so deeply wounded that she simply cannot function in our world. By the film's end, she's become so lost that it's impossible to find her way back, killing a man who does not want to harm her, does not want to take advantage of her, does not want anything from her but to help. The man has to die simply for knowing her—she is beyond salvation.
The film, though, does not put Wuornos's crimes at its center—it's not about the killings, but about the killer. More accurately, it is about the relationship between Aileen and Selby, and how Aileen clung desperately to hopes of redemption by falling in love. That's what I love most about Monster—it's essentially a doomed love story. It's bleak, to be sure, but with someone as badly damaged as Wuornos as its subject, how could it not be? At its heart, though, is the relationship between these two women who desperately needed one another to survive. Their two goodbye scenes are heartbreaking, aided in huge measure by Jenkins' handling of the material and the performances of the two leads—especially Theron's quiet shift when she finally decides to free Selby and let her go. Man, those scenes wreck me.
Watching Monster, I was reminded of Kimberly Pierce's hauntingly beautiful Boys Don't Cry. Both films feature a kind of tragic love story, doomed to violence by the very nature of their central figures. Boys Don't Cry gave us Brandon Teena, who was victimized as a result of his (her) nature. Wuornos, on the hand, develops her nature—that of a killer—as the result of a lifetime of victimization. Either way, both characters are condemned by their actions, and their respective films seek to lead us down the path of their self-destruction. Both films have a similar tone as well—that of a hallucinatory love story undercut by violence and suffering.
By now a great deal has been written and said about the astonishing physical transformation by Charlize Theron: how she gained thirty pounds, how she shaved her eyebrows, how she applied false teeth and skin-damage makeup to turn herself into Wuornos. And it is an impressive feat of De Niroesque proportions, but it doesn't say much for her performance. And folks, I'm here to tell you she doesn't hit a false note in the entire film—she really is that good. Thinking back to some of her earlier films, like That Thing You Do! or Trial and Error, it may have been impossible to predict exactly what Theron is capable of as an actress; her work in Monster is one of the single most powerful performances I've ever seen. She nails that feeling of an individual completely uncomfortable in her own skin. Watch the way she widens her eyes, the way she constantly shifts her body—she is never at rest. Whatever pain Theron called upon to create this character, I don't need to know about it. She is an absolute revelation in this film.
In the shadow of Theron, Christina Ricci, as Selby, received very little attention for her performance. And while there is no question that fewer demands are placed on Ricci, her performance is every bit as good as Theron's in terms of how it services the film (meaning Ricci is great in the film, but Theron's performance will be measured and remembered for decades to come). Watch Ricci as she shifts subtly from whiny immaturity to cold manipulation in the span of moments—she's totally convincing in the role of a woman who knows she shares responsibility for Wuornos' actions but wants to believe otherwise. Despite the fact that she loves Aileen, she's not willing to give up her life for her—and it's the lack of recklessness in her character that defines Ricci's performance. Whereas Theron teeters on the edge, Ricci plays it safe. She's excellent regardless.
This is writer/director Patty Jenkins's first film, and it's that rare perfect achievement—she knocks it out of the park her first time at bat. Few first-time directors have demonstrated such control over the material—not only adapting a true story into a mesmerizing screenplay (like Kimberly Pierce did with Boys Don't Cry), but also drawing a brilliant performance out of a previously unproven actress (again like Pierce; both Pierce's leading lady, Hilary Swank, and Theron won Best Actress Oscars© for their work). Jenkins also demonstrates a mastery of tone; a film that could have been crushingly depressing manages to find more than just that one note. She paints the world the way Wuornos saw it, inhabiting her character and looking outward. The film never asks us to pity her, merely to see her. It's a stunning accomplishment—one that Jenkins may have difficulty topping, though I look forward to seeing her try.
Columbia TriStar has done a fine job with the disc of the film, presented here in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and enhanced for 16x 9 playback. There's an extremely limited amount of grain visible (what little there is doesn't appear until about two-thirds of the way through), and for the most part the image is pristine. Colors are well balanced, and detail is razor-sharp even in the film's darkest scenes. We're offered both a 5.1 DTS and a standard digital 5.1 audio track, and I'd have to give the advantage to the DTS track. Though both tracks do an outstanding job of delivering the soundtrack (especially the excellent score by composer BT), the DTS track does a better job of handling Theron's narration. Either one is quite acceptable, but the DTS track is preferable.
The disc has a limited amount of supplemental material, though for once I actually don't mind—in some ways, I feel as though the less that's said about the process of creating the film, the better. In addition to a couple of trailers, there is a brief making-of featurette, in which Jenkins and Theron explain the direction from which they wanted to approach the film, and showing the process Theron underwent to complete her physical transformation. There's also an interview with Jenkins and composer BT about the film's unforgettable score—like the film it supports, this music haunts and resonates long after it has ended. Another featurette examines the process of the DTS mix, even allowing the viewer to remix the scene. While I'm glad that some attention was paid to the fantastic score and sound design, these extras aren't entirely necessary.
If you really do feel gypped on extras, check out the Nick Broomfield documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, being released concurrently with Monster by Columbia TriStar (both films are available as a two-pack). Though it doesn't necessarily shed any light on the making of Jenkins's film, it will provide a fascinating look at the film's real-life subject.
Please see Monster. Please. It's one of the best American films of recent years.
Regardless of its protagonist's guilt, Theron, Jenkins, and Monster are free to go. What a sad, beautiful film.
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• Behind the Scenes Featurette
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