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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.

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.

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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

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