Monster (2003)

Ah, the biopic. Generally reviews end up being either, “This movie is so intensely terrible, Aileen Wuornos was a remorseless piece of shit and deserved to die!!” or “This is such a true portrait of the horrific events and unstoppable events that tragically led Aileen Wuornos to her awful end, painting a faithful picture of the real human being she actually was.” I tend to sneer sardonically at either of these, even if they come from writer/directors behind them (which one hopes neither does). It’s not going to be the point, even if it’s intended to be, because this simply isn’t reality, and all film (short of Andy Warhol’s peculiar inanities, I suppose) is heightened reality, no matter how real or realistic it may be.

Aileen “Lee” Wuornos (Charlize Theron) is a prostitute considering suicide under an overpass when she decides to get a beer and spend the last cash in her pocket at a gay bar, where the timid Selby Wall (Christina Ricci) reaches out to her. Lee is first offended by Selby’s approach, loudly proclaiming her heterosexuality, until Selby defensively (and hurt) admits that she simply wanted someone to talk to. Lee reconsiders and uncomfortably sits back down to a night of drinks and laughter that continues. Selby is staying with Donna (Annie Corley) after her father caught her trying to kiss a girl, and Donna does not want Selby to be around Lee at all. Lee, however, sees the only kind soul in all the life she can remember–and she recounts much of it to the audience. When Lee takes on one final John to try to get money to take Selby out, she finds things different from before. Vincent Corey (Lee Tergesen) seems like any other, but begins to get more and more angry finally turning the occasion into a chance to take out his obvious misogyny by beating and raping Wuornos, until a wild motion frees her hands and allows her to shoot him down. Scared by her actions, Lee returns to Selby and begs her to leave off the normal life and come with her to stay together. Soon Wuornos has decided that the more profitable killing of Johns is the better occupation, seeing it also as a chance to, subconscious, take revenge on all the men who have mistreated her. As is always the case with such stories, the ending is inexorable, and the killings are not easily hidden as they pile up.

I’m not interested in what this movie tells me about the real Aileen Wuornos, because it doesn’t tell me anything. It could be accurate to the minutiae, that that car had a dent right there in that fender, that Wuornos was exactly the height of Theron–it still isn’t reality. We don’t see all the details, and we’re relying on human memory, and a lot of it the memory of a single person. If for some reason this is your first experience with a film purporting to be a true story or if it’s one of a long string of them, just remember–this is a movie, and nothing more. What a film like Monster can tell us is something more general, something about how a person, a personality, a thing, an entity, a life, a being, a murderer, a monster can be formed from the same origins as anyone else. Writer and director Patty Jenkins smartly does not focus on building up a horrible childhood for Wuornos, instead, in what was almost the most chilling part of the film to me, letting Lee tell her own story, talking at the beginning about her way of dealing with reality through imagination, while images hint at abuse taking place behind it, or when she refers nonchalantly to an event being clearly when she was thirteen, because she had just given “the baby up for adoption.” This completely neutral acceptance of events that most of us would still find horrifying, or at the least somewhat troubling is just a statement on how far removed Wuornos is from the average person. Her violent response to all of this is proof that the events still resonate in her, that she still holds some kind of grudge for them, and it is further proof of how far those events disconnected her from the idea of causing others pain.

The important thing, though, in truly characterizing any human is to realize that they are human. There are certain segments of the population that like to pretend that the serial killers and genocidal political leaders of the real world are some kind of perfectly inhuman monster with no redeeming qualities, no personality and nothing resembling an actual human nature in them. This is a bizarre mentality, though an easily understood one–it’s easier to distance oneself from these concepts if one draws lines like that, however much denial they realistically require. But the truth is that each and every one of us is human, be we law-abiders, law-benders or outright homicidal law-breakers. There is probably some kind of abuse hiding behind many violent crimes, or at least behind the willingness to commit them, and that probability does not make the perpetrator of them innocent or defensible–simply explicable. This is not a bad thing, and is in fact a helpful thing. Remembering that there is that possibility in all of us allows us to keep it in check, allows us to be open to the idea that it could be anyone.

Ricci’s Selby manages to evoke a completely different kind of monster, one that is, to my mind, almost worse in terms of core value and personality, though certainly not as bad in action. Selby pushes Aileen to provide for her, flies into frustrated rages when things do not go right and takes advantage of Lee at all opportunities. She doesn’t truly value anyone else as she’s yet to find her own value, and this is a dangerous mix with someone as similarly aimless as Lee. But of course we can see that Selby is not acting out of a cold and indifferent selfishness so much as one that is not aware of how things are or what the things are that she is dealing with. This kind of selfishness is almost more dangerous because it can be the catalyst behind actions like those of Wuornos, inspiring more violent reactions than might naturally occur.

Theron’s performance has been lauded endlessly, even earning an Oscar, and there’s good reason. It’s a fantastic performance, but so is Ricci’s, as both of them fully embody the characters they are playing, contrasting with roles both of them are more typically imagined in–a much weaker, mousier Ricci than I’ve seen (even subduing her natural spunk and, um, assets, in the process) and a more aggressive, energetic Theron than I can recall seeing. I naturally can’t speak to the accuracy of Theron’s performance with regard to the real Wuornos, but it’s an absolutely believable character, as is Ricci’s, and a strong supporting cast that also includes Bruce Dern as Thomas, the one man who doesn’t try to gain from, use or waste Lee, who shows a real kind of concern, but this is absolutely Theron’s show, with Ricci fighting for her share of it.

This isn’t a terribly pleasant movie (it’s about a serial killer after all!), nor a very happy one even for the ultra-antihero-but-still-sympathetic protagonist, but it’s a very good one, with an excellent score by “BT,” and a fun selection of music under the consultation, apparently, of Journey’s Steve Perry (who I guess could not resist the shameless self-promotion of the inclusion of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” which followed INXS’ “New Sensation”–to my great delight, which was only added to by the appearance of Tommy James and the Shondell’s “Crimson and Clover”).

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