Full Review"Monster" (Newmarket) -- a fictionalized, though fact-based, drama which chronicles the notorious 1989-90 killing spree of serial murderer Aileen Wuornos -- is a good example of an exceptional performance wrapped in an unexceptional film.
In examining the woman labeled the "Damsel of Death," first-time writer-director Patty Jenkins walks a fine line, teetering precariously between humanizing Wuornos and justifying her heinous crimes to the point of painting her as a victim.
Leggy South African-born Charlize Theron plays Wuornos, a roadside prostitute turned killer, arrested and executed by the state of Florida for the murder of six men -- only the second female to be put to death in the state's history. The film opens with a slapdash montage of dusty memories during which Theron's voiceover recounts Wuornos' bleak past. The painful soliloquy ends on a shot of Wuornos, a study in desolation, huddled against the rain under an interstate off-ramp cradling a gun in her hands as she contemplates suicide.
Deciding against it, she wanders into the first dry place she finds, which turns out to be a gay bar. Ordering a drink she is approached by a companionship-starved young woman who introduces herself as Selby Wall (a composite character played by Christina Ricci), a native Midwesterner sent to live with conservative Christian relatives in Florida by her parents to "cure her homosexuality." Though Wuornos initially declares her heterosexuality, the two women soon become lovers.
Wall is mesmerized by the older woman's tough-talking bravura -- which quickly proves a smokescreen for the outcast's totally depleted sense of confidence and self-esteem. Likewise, Wuornos finds the youthful attention (which she confuses as love) intoxicating, clinging to the minor like a life preserver, afraid to let go lest she succumb to the undertow of utter despair and alienation. The two begin living together in fleabag motels, with Wuornos -- after a failed, pathetic attempt to enter the workforce -- resorting again to selling herself as a means of support.
A brutal rape at the hands of a sadistic john -- whom Wuornos shoots in self-defense -- serves as a psychological trip cord, unleashing a volcano of pent-up rage simmering below her surface. The floodgates of fury burst, setting in motion a murderous 13-month rampage which plays itself out against her ongoing dysfunctional relationship with Wall, culminating in Wuornos' arrest in January 1991.
While the film refrains from sensationalizing her crimes, it fails to shed any meaningful light on their underlying motivations. Beyond the hurried opening sequence, little screen time is afforded to her formative years, when she was abandoned by her parents, raped before she was a teen and pregnant before she was old enough to drive. Though no argument, no matter how heart-wrenching, can be used to condone or excuse her ghastly deeds, a fuller picture of her tragic past would have fostered deeper understanding from viewers, if not sympathy. As a result, Wuornos comes across less as a wounded animal lashing out desperately and indiscriminately at a cruel world than as a misogynistic avenging angel.
The narrative also suffers from a conspicuous absence of any scenes involving the families of the victims -- some of whom were merely good Samaritans unlucky enough to have offered a ride to the wrong hitchhiker. This conscious decision to focus solely on Wuornos denies viewers a fair, balanced telling of the events and raises questions pertaining to the filmmaker's intent. By the midway point, the film begins to lose steam, floundering between a gritty character study and a lesbian soap opera -- saved only by Theron's gutsy performance.
In a nip-tuck industry ruled by glamour, Theron showed chutzpah by packing 30 pounds onto her frame for the role. And though her portrayal is not without moments of apish mimicking, Theron's eerie metamorphosis is utterly convincing -- a disappearing act owing as much to acting ability as to prosthetics.
As a whole, "Monster" attempts to find humanity even among ugliness and depravity and reminds us that -- in the words of Florida bishops petitioning a stay of execution for Wuornos -- "Aileen Wuornos may not be free of guilt, but her life remains sacred in the eyes of God."
Due to a few lesbian sexual encounters with partial nudity, recurring violence including a rape, stereotyping of conservative Christians, as well as pervasive rough and crude language, the USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted.
These movies have been evaluated for artistic merit and moral suitability by the media reviewing division of Catholic News Service. The reviews include the CNS rating, the Motion Picture Association of America rating, and a brief synopsis of the movie.
The classifications are as follows:
A-I -- general patronage;
A-II -- adults and adolescents;
A-III -- adults;
L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. L replaces the previous classification, A-IV.
O -- morally offensive.
Note: Some movies previously were designated A-IV. Older films with this classification should be regarded as classified L.