×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Monster

Life and death of Aileen Wuornos is molded in "Monster" into a cohesive, serious-minded drama with stylistic roots in other fact-based serial killer chronicles like "Badlands." Charlize Theron's powerful, physically astonishing performance should attract the kind of critical attention necessary to mine the specialized niche.

With:
Aileen Wuornos - Charlize Theron Selby Wall - Christina Ricci Thomas - Bruce Dern Horton - Scott Wilson Gene - Pruitt Taylor Vince Vincent Corey - Lee Tergesen Donna Tentler - Annie Corley

Already the subject of two films from Brit documaker Nick Broomfield, the life and death of Aileen Wuornos is molded in “Monster” into a cohesive, serious-minded drama with stylistic roots in other fact-based serial killer chronicles like “Badlands” and “The Executioner’s Song.” At the same time, it traces a troubled misfit love story, and it’s in this aspect that writer-director Patty Jenkins’ detached vantage point blunts the emotional impact. But the drama’s uncompromising nature and, above all, Charlize Theron’s powerful, physically astonishing performance should attract the kind of critical attention necessary to mine the specialized niche.

Opening Dec. 24, the Newmarket release joins other year-end awards contenders distinguished by grim subject matter and a refusal to console, including “House of Sand and Fog,” “21 Grams” and “Mystic River,” together constituting perhaps the most robust corps of anti-holiday offerings in memory.

“Monster” attempts to look beyond the sensationalistic tabloid account of a woman designated by the media as the first female serial killer, who murdered seven men and was executed in Florida in 2002 after 12 years on Death Row. But Jenkins’ intention is not to coax sympathy or construct a feminist martyr. Without downplaying the horror of Wuornos’ crimes or the abrasiveness of the woman, the writer-director humanizes Wuornos by focusing less on the killings than on the surrounding circumstances.

While the film represents an assured feature bow for Jenkins, a graduate of the American Film Institute Director’s Program, chief talking point will be Theron — who also produced — in a performance that erases the actress’s creamy-skinned softness and classic beauty in a radical transformation rendering her virtually unrecognizable.

Bulked up to make her puffy and jowly, with bad teeth, processed hair and blotchy, freckled skin; her mouth set almost permanently in a fierce, determined grimace and her awkward body stiff with aggressive posturing, Theron works hard at the role of Wuornos. And while she perhaps doesn’t have the natural technique of, say, Meryl Streep or Cate Blanchett at effortlessly inhabiting a challenging character, Theron finds not only the toughened harshness and anger but also the damaged vulnerability, sadness and need in Wuornos, making her work here thoroughly convincing and empathetic. Special credit for her transformation goes also to makeup artist Toni G.

A voiceover-accompanied recap of Wuornos’ childhood and youth shows her dreaming of stardom and believing every guy that comes along will be the one to discover her and deliver her to a better life. Turning tricks by age 13, Aileen has long since seen her dreams crushed by bitter experience. While contemplating suicide, Aileen decides instead to spend her last $5 on a beer, drifting inadvertently into a Florida gay bar where she meets Selby (Christina Ricci), sent to live with relatives by religious parents freaked out by her incipient lesbian tendencies.

While Aileen makes it clear — initially in hostile terms — that she’s not gay, Selby represents her first real friend. In Aileen, Selby sees an avenue of escape from her suffocating environment and someone to take care of her. However, the relationship becomes sexual as Aileen experiences the kind of emotional attachment she’s never felt with men.

Aileen turns some quick tricks to pay for a hotel room for her and Selby, but one john (Lee Tergesen) turns violent, tying her up in his car and sexually brutalizing her. She breaks free and shoots him in what amounts to self-defense, then buries the body and takes his car. Saying nothing to Selby of the incident aside from her desire to give up prostitution, Aileen tries to find honest work. But her lack of experience and education soon force her back to working the highway.

Aileen is emboldened by the experience of being part of a relationship, but subject to a destabilizing wave of rage and hatred as she continues hooking. She looks for the worst in men, assuming every john is a violent, irredeemable rapist to justify her ongoing killing spree. In one affecting scene, she picks up a stuttering novice (Pruitt Taylor Vince), whose awkwardness penetrates Aileen’s anger.

When Aileen unwittingly kills a cop, the investigation into the series of killings intensifies, leading eventually to her arrest.

Gritty and compelling as “Monster” is, the script’s not entirely satisfying elaboration of the central relationship and Ricci’s somewhat ungiving performance limit the material to that of a superior telemovie rather than something emotionally richer, like “Boys Don’t Cry.”

The pathos of Aileen’s desperate need to be close to someone is made palpable by Theron. But while Selby initially seems an open-hearted girl eager to break free and explore her sexuality, once the relationship flowers, she becomes merely a demanding user, selfish and ungrateful. She forces Aileen to continue turning tricks, insensitive to her discomfort in doing so.

Selby learns of the first murder and clearly perceives the continuing pattern, but feigns ignorance until becoming the state’s chief witness against her former lover. The one-sided love story may indeed have taken this course, but Jenkins’ failure to convey more real tenderness between the couple robs the film of some emotional resonance.

While it’s largely a two-character drama, two key supporting roles draw on the actors’ screen histories to underscore the pic’s link with American films of the late ’60s and ’70s, and their insight into misunderstood rebels or outcast antiheroes: Bruce Dern plays a Vietnam vet running a storage facility, whose shared experience of despair creates an affinity with Aileen; and Scott Wilson, who played Kansas killer Dick Hickock in “In Cold Blood,” appears as Wuornos’ well-intentioned final victim.

Jenkins and lenser Steven Bernstein display a strong feel for the flat, central Florida locations, the drab suburbia, cheap motels and white-trash bars. Also efficient in establishing the sense of time and place is the mix of M.O.R. ’80s rock tracks with a subtly moody score by deejay-composer BT.

Monster

Production: A Newmarket Films release of a Newmarket Films presentation in association with Media 8 Entertainment, DEJ Prods. of a K/W Prods./Denver & Delilah Films production in association with VIP Medienfonds 2, MDP Filmproduktion. Produced by Charlize Theron, Mark Damon, Clark Peterson, Donald Kushner, Brad Wyman. Executive producers, Sammy Lee, Megan Riley-Grant, Stewart Hall, Andreas Grosch, Andreas Schmid. Co-producer, Brent Morris. Directed, written by Patty Jenkins.

Crew: Camera (FotoKem color), Steven Bernstein; editors, Jane Kurson, Arthur Coburn; music, BT; music supervisor, Howard Paar; production designer, Edward T. McAvoy; art director, Orvis Rigsby; set decorator, Shawn R. McFall; costume designer, Rhona Meyers; sound (DTS/Dolby Digital), Peter Devlin; key makeup artist, Toni G.; assistant director, David Cluck; second unit director/camera, Guy Livneh; casting, Ferne Cassel. Reviewed at Review 1 screening room, New York, Nov. 13, 2003. (In AFI Los Angeles Film Festival -- closing gala.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 109 MIN.

With: Aileen Wuornos - Charlize Theron Selby Wall - Christina Ricci Thomas - Bruce Dern Horton - Scott Wilson Gene - Pruitt Taylor Vince Vincent Corey - Lee Tergesen Donna Tentler - Annie Corley

More Film

  • C'est La Vie TIFF

    French Films' Overseas Box Office Revenue Drops 51% in 2018

    After bouncing back in 2017, the overseas box office revenue of French movies plummeted by 51% to 237 million euros ($270 million) with 40 million admissions sold, a 52% year-on drop, in 2018. The provisional box office figures were unveiled by UniFrance during a reception hosted at France’s culture minister during which Eric Toledano and [...]

  • Isabela Moner Shameik Moore Kiernan Shipka

    Netflix Casts Starry Ensemble for Adaptation of John Green's 'Let It Snow'

    “Dora the Explorer’s” Isabela Moner, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s” Shameik Moore, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s” Kiernan Shipka, “Lady Bird’s” Odeya Rush, Jacob Batalon, Miles Robbins, Mitchell Hope, Liv Hewson, Anna Akana, and Joan Cusack are set to star in the Netflix pic “Let It Snow.” The film is based on the New York Times bestselling [...]

  • Brian Tyree Henry Playback Podcast If

    Listen: From 'Beale Street' to 'Spider-Verse,' Brian Tyree Henry Was Your 2018 MVP

    Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. Emmy- and Tony-nominated actor Brian Tyree Henry is coming off a sensational year. A second, acclaimed season of FX’s “Atlanta” sent him headlong into a fall movie season that saw featured roles in Yann [...]

  • (L to R) SAMUEL L. JACKSON,

    How a Costume Designer Brightened M. Night Shyamalan's 'Glass'

    Paco Delgado’s costumes are as varied as his films. Contrast the drama “The Danish Girl,” the futuristic fantasy “A Wrinkle in Time” and the period musical “Les Misérables.” Now he’s in comic-book territory with M. Night Shyamalan’s newest superhero/supervillain thriller, “Glass,” which Universal releases Jan. 17. The costume designer’s career began in Barcelona and London, [...]

  • The Lego Movie 2

    'Lego Movie 2' Heading for $55 Million Opening Weekend

    Warner Bros.’ “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” is heading for an opening weekend of as much as $55 million at the North American box office on Feb. 8-10, early tracking showed Thursday. Chris Pratt is returning to voice Master Builder Emmet Brickowski along with new character Rex Dangervest. The unfailingly optimistic Emmet has [...]

  • Kevin Hart Monopoly

    Kevin Hart in Talks to Star in Monopoly Movie

    Kevin Hart is in talks to star in Lionsgate and Hasbro’s Monopoly live-action movie, which he will also produce through his HartBeat Productions label. Tim Story is in final negotiations to direct the film and also produce through his Story Company banner. HartBeat’s John Cheng will also produce and oversee the pic with Carli Haney. Story Company [...]

  • Playtime Unveils Three New French Comedies

    Playtime Dives Into Different Waves of French Comedy (EXCLUSIVE)

    Playtime, the Paris-based co-production and sales company which will be presenting Francois Ozon’s anticipated “By the Grace of God” in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, has acquired three offbeat French comedies: Geraldine Nakache’s “I’ll Go Where You Go,” “The Bare Necessity” with Fanny Ardant, and Valerie Donzelli’s “Our Lady of Paris.” “Our Lady of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content