`monster Mishmash

Charlize Theron's big bad-girl career move falls victim to flimsy characters and a love story that strains reality.


January 23, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Charlize Theron gained 30 pounds and made herself look grotty in order to play serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. She ended up resembling Gary Busey at his most macho-flamboyant as much as she does the hooker executed in 2002 for taking six men's lives along Florida's interstate highways. (A seventh body wasn't found.)

Like Busey preparing to be nasty in Drop Zone or Man With a Gun, she flashes her eyes and works the muscles around her down-turned mouth to suggest churning impulses even when she doesn't force a belligerent toothy smile. When she feels full of pride and passion, she flings her head back, shoves her chest out and stomps aggressively through biker bars. A consistently intelligent and graceful actress even in unchallenging projects, Theron has been hungering for a stretch. But she picked the wrong project to do it. In Monster, her desire to be actorly is stronger than writer-director Patty Jenkins' depiction of a hapless homicidal psychopath.

With Christina Ricci interpreting Wuornos' lesbian lover, here called Selby Wall, as a wide-eyed Midwestern innocent, and Theron's Wuornos impressing her no end with advanced degrees from the School of Hard Knocks, Monster at times plays like a nightmare episode of I'm With Busey.

Of course, the knowledge of the real lives tortured and wasted in this story - including Wuornos' - won't allow viewers to snicker or tune out. Rarely has the legend "based on a true story" served so cruelly as emotional blackmail. Monster is a southeastern death trip in which the only true exit is lethal injection and the main topic is that old culprit "the cycle of violence."

Not satisfied with her avalanche of raves (including the best actress award from the National Society of Film Critics), Theron voiced disbelief on The Charlie Rose Show that anyone could think she was "over-the-top" - at least anyone who'd actually seen clips of Aileen Wuornos. But if all of Wuornos' anguish and aggression were so easily read on the surface, was it wise to do this movie in such a dead-on way? (And I don't think Wuornos was so easy to read; she can be mysteriously affectless in Nick Broomfield's documentary The Selling of Aileen Wuornos. Broomfield himself found her "psychotic.")

Wuornos biographer Sue Russell has written that Wuornos' "real driving force" was "a search for an emotional bond and love" after receiving nothing but abuse or abandonment from family members and "the callous young men who had sex with her while she was an adolescent." Russell contended she found what she was looking for only when she hooked up with the woman Monster calls Selby, and that six of the seven Wuornos murder dates "matched times when she felt under heightened threat of losing" her first and only real lover.

Though Russell doesn't receive any credit on Monster, Jenkins' script follows her analysis assiduously. What results is a case study streaked with pleading. Jenkins establishes immediately that the same psychic mechanism that allowed Wuornos to survive as a hooker from age 14 - her willed belief that even the guys she met as a prostitute might see through to the beauty at her core - prepares her for a total break with reality.

Wuornos, speaking from beyond the grave in voiceover narration, says she always wanted to be in the movies. Seconds later she meets Selby in a gay bar and falls for this diminutive and retiring woman's incongruous heroine worship. (Ricci is good at playing infatuation, but it's hard to believe Wuornos leaves her character starstruck.)

In Monster, Wuornos commits her first killing shortly after she meets Selby, and does it in self-defense: The real-life Wuornos always said Richard Mallory raped and tortured her. (After her trial, a reporter discovered Mallory had been convicted of another rape.) The john who proves to be her next target isn't too savory, either, and the movie begins to take on pop feminist-revenge overtones out of Thelma & Louise. Jenkins wants to bring an audience rambling into Wuornos' mind-set and then apply the brakes as Wuornos starts to execute men who are blameless except for buying sex (one is even innocent of that). In Wuornos' head, she accuses almost all of them of raping her or wanting to.

The great black-comic director Luis Bunuel once snorted at how "the fledgling writer in his first youthful effort is sure to warn us of the dangers of dividing things too clearly into black and white." He could be talking about Jenkins. Her dramatic strategy is a bald stab at complexity. It milks sympathy for a murderer, then ignites banal talk-show questions in your head, like "aren't there thousands of abused and even raped prostitutes from damaged childhoods who didn't become serial killers?"

And her characters are flimsy, too. Selby Wall simply buys Wuornos' defense of Mallory's murder and ignores all evidence that she has kept on killing. The movie is ambiguous about whether Selby knew in her bones what was happening, and it's hazy about why prosecutors go so easy on her; she isn't charged for anything once she emotionally coerces Wuornos into a confession. Through most of the film she acts like a willful, wheedling child - and Wuornos becomes a fool for love. So does the movie.


Starring Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci

Directed by Patty Jenkins

Rated R

Released by Newmarket

Time 111 minutes

Sun Score **

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