When Patty Jenkins was writing the screenplay for Monster, she happened to catch The Devil’s Advocate (1997) on TV. When she saw Charlize Theron, she knew that she had found her Aileen Wuornos. The tall, beautiful South African actress might be willing to go the distance and turn herself inside out for Monster. Jenkins was right – whenever this film comes up short, Theron is there to carry the day.
Jenkins’s story about Wuornos begins in the late 1980s, when Aileen (Charlize Theron) is making a living as a prostitute. After moving to Florida, she meets Selby Wall (Christina Ricci) in a gay bar. Their first encounter is somewhat hostile, but after getting drunk together Aileen agrees to stay the night at Selby’s place. She’s currently living with relatives after getting kicked out by her father for trying to kiss another girl at church. Even though the relatives find out about Selby’s new acquaintance immediately, she continues to see Aileen and the couple fall in love. However, one night Aileen happens to walk straight into a trap – one of her johns turns out to be a sadist who beats and rapes her with a tool. As he prepares to do even worse things to her, she gets her hands on his gun and kills him.
After escaping the scene, Aileen returns to Selby and they move into a motel. Their financial situation is getting desperate though and Aileen, who initially promised to quit her line of work, reluctantly decides to get back on the streets… only to find that it is easier to just kill the johns and take their money.
Fascinating as a psychological study
The real-life Aileen Wuornos was found guilty of six murders and sentenced to death in 1992; ten years later she was executed. One of very few female serial killers, her case remains fascinating as a psychological study and this is what Jenkins has attempted. She was granted access to many letters that Wuornos had written, giving her a unique insight into this person’s mind and history, which is reflected in the film. The early part of it tries to explain how Wuornos as a child essentially duped herself into thinking that she would become a celebrated star; social circumstances helped pave the way for her descent into prostitution and crime. As a film, Monster is less interesting than the life of Wuornos but is still competently directed by Jenkins who makes the love affair between the killer and Selby look and feel real.
Ricci is terrific in the part of the naive girl who falls for an obviously damaged woman, but Theron is even more impressive. Thanks to Toni G’s brilliant makeup (which you never think of as makeup) she looks like a completely different human being; combined with her acting, Theron becomes an intimidating, bulky woman with a white-trash hairdo and a bitter, cold-hearted look in her eyes.
Perhaps it was expected that a movie about a female serial killer would try to make us understand and sympathize with her to a greater extent than if it had been a man. Still, Jenkins never denies the fact that Wuornos did deserve what was coming to her, regardless of whether that first murder was justified or not. Aileen believed in the right to kill people who did her wrong and never stopped blaming others for her troubles.
Monster 2003-U.S. 109 min. Color. Produced by Mark Damon, Donald Kushner, Clark Peterson, Charlize Theron, Brad Wyman. Written and directed by Patty Jenkins. Makeup: Toni G. Cast: Charlize Theron (Aileen Wuornos), Christina Ricci (Selby Wall), Bruce Dern (Thomas), Scott Wilson, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Lee Tergesen.
Trivia: Kate Hudson was allegedly considered for the part of Selby. A TV movie about Wuornos was made in 1992 called Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story.
Oscar: Best Actress (Theron). Golden Globe: Best Actress (Theron). Berlin: Best Actress (Theron).
Last word: “I never … I fought, and we all did, never to be swayed by anybody else’s opinion of the circumstances, because I was the one taking on telling this person’s life morally, and I was the one whose name was going to be on it and had to live with it, so down to the nuance, I just had to stay true to what I believed the truth was. So there was no room for conversations like ‘We’d like to make her more sympathetic or not.’ That was out of the question for me.” (Jenkins, Movable Fest)