Two Nick Broomfield documentaries about her are already in circulation, but Monster is the first dramatic film to deal with serial killer Aileen Wuornos. A highway prostitute in Florida, she killed six or seven of her tricks (she was convicted of six murders and later confessed to seven) and gained infamy as America's first female serial killer. Writer/director Patty Jenkins in her first feature film manages to avoid a number of obvious pitfalls in her approach to the material, which she shoots in a spare, near-documentary style in the white-trash emptiness of central Florida.
On the one hand, Wuornos plainly was a victim. Abused, abandoned, on her own since the age of 14, she was trapped in an existence with no options. Jenkins allows us to sympathize with her, but, on the other hand, not to the point where we believe her actions were justified.
Of course, the principal interest in this film is Charlize Theron's performance as Wuornos, which is startling and unexpected. It's not just her physical transformation, notably her weight gain, but also the prosthetics used to eliminate any physical resemblance to the charismatic and beautiful star of The Italian Job, Sweet November and Reindeer Games. This is a perversely awesome achievement. I've seen Theron walk into a party at the Toronto film festival and freeze the room; everyone stopped what they were doing just to watch her take a few steps.
But the effect is only distracting for a while. You stare at Theron as Wuornos for the first 10 minutes of the film, trying to locate the star beneath the character.
Once you become accustomed to the transformation, the performance takes over, and it's emotionally true, particularly in Wuornos's torturous romantic relationship with Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a young lesbian with severe family issues and a crippling neediness. (The character is fictionalized, including her name, for legal reasons.)
The problem with films about real-life serial killers is that generally the most interesting thing about them is that they were killers. Monster is made with clean hands and good intentions, but I started to feel that it would have been a more interesting film had it centred on Ricci's character.
Tell me about the person who falls in love with the serial killer.
MONSTER written and directed by Patty Jenkins, produced by Mark Damon, Donald Kushner, Clark Peterson, Charlize Theron and Brad Wyman, with Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern and Scott Wilson. 111 minutes. A Zodiac Films production. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (January 16). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 61. Rating: NNN