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Monster
cast: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen, and Marc Macaulay

writer and director: Patty Jenkins

104 minutes (18) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Roger Keen
The serial killer story has become so commonplace in film and TV as to seem almost mundane, so the story of Aileen Wuornos - female serial killer of men - jumped out as tailor-made to enliven the genre with a fresh angle, and to redress the balance of men having all the limelight. But the complex and sometimes impenetrable pathologies of real-life killers do not always make for the crowd-pleasing sleekness of a Hannibal Lecter, and have to be radically streamlined to fit the frame of a 100-minute feature film, which must possess both entertainment value and take an acceptable moral line. Make the killer too horrifying, or indeed too sympathetic - like Mark Lewis in Peeping Tom - and the audience may vote against you with their feet.

Monster is not the first film to tackle the subject of Wuornos. There have been, amongst others, Nick Broomfield's two documentaries, featuring the woman herself and going into her life in great detail, so the facts are already pretty well known. Rather than attempt to be a complete biopic of Wuornos, Monster concentrates on her relationship with lesbian lover Tyria Moore - called 'Selby' in the film - and deals with the murders within that context. What we have then is a chick-buddy movie with a similar feel to Thelma & Louise, detailing the special closeness of two women as they go further and further off the track of law and order, and deeper and deeper into chaos.

'Lee' Wuornos (Charlize Theron) bumps into Selby (Christina Ricci) in a gay bar, and after some initial friction - Lee insists she's not gay - they hit it off. Selby is still living with her parents, who disapprove of their friendship, and Lee has no fixed abode, so without money their future is unpromising. To get more, Lee turns to her occasional trade as a street prostitute, and one night she meets an abusive punter (Lee Tergesen), who sexually assaults her. But Lee manages to get hold of his gun and shoots him dead. The killing yields up valuable cash, and the pair are able to take-off, living in cheap hotels and binge drinking. To further fund their activities, Lee goes on a murder spree, gunning down other punters and relieving them of their wallets and cars. Eventually Selby finds out about the killings, and things unravel fast in a spiral of panic as the law starts to catch up with them.

Monster's main strength lies in its acting, in particular the much celebrated and deservedly Oscar-winning performance of Charlize Theron, whose transformation from her glamorous normal self into a convincing replica of Aileen Wuornos is positively awesome. It is a performance so solidly grounded and so rich in detail that it powers the narrative along and gives Monster a vivid, semi-fictional life of its own, independent of the source material. Christina Ricci's petite, doe-eyed Selby is the perfect compliment for Theron's more masculine Lee, and Ricci too sheds her customary glamour to play a downbeat character with great effect. Bruce Dern gives a strong supporting performance as Thomas, a drinking pal of Lee's and perhaps the only genuine nice guy in her life. Other good performances come from Lee Tergesen and Marc Macaulay as two of the sleazy 'johns' that Lee picks up and dispatches. Filmed at night on location, these scenes have a powerful noir-gothic quality pointing to director Patty Jenkins having a future within the territory of Scorsese and Tarantino. And overall the Daytona trailer-trash underworld of seedy bars, gas stations and diners, lonely streets and sinister swamplands is evoked very authentically.

Monster's main weakness lies in what it leaves out - or couldn't find a way to fit in - about the personality of Aileen Wuornos. The film starts with a brief sketch of her childhood - her hopes and dreams and her early sexual adventures. But the sketch doesn't inform us of the terrible abuse she suffered - the continual rape from an early age, and the absence of love and support from her family. Fairly late on in the film, Lee does tell one of her victims about these childhood rapes, and that feels so important it should have been foregrounded earlier in building a picture of this severely damaged person. How did she get from killing one abusive client, primarily in self-defence - something most any prostitute may have done - to using prostitution to systematically lure men into murder traps - something pretty much unprecedented? Monster portrays it as an adjunct to highway robbery, dictated out of economic necessity, which carried with it some of the pangs of a normal guilty conscience. But the truth is much murkier.

In Nick Broomfield's documentaries we see a woman who, though capable of being rational up to a point, clearly has big psychotic corners to her personality. She is very angry, but she's also paranoid and delusional. In Monster, Theron has the anger down perfectly - the whip-crack loss of control, the dammed-up rage exploding in all directions - but what we don't see nearly enough of is the madness. True, there is a scene where Lee uses a twisted rationale to justify the murders to Selby - a scene shot with many variations as evinced by the outtakes in the extras section - but we never quite get the quality of true derangement that comes from the real Wuornos, the crazed motivation that enabled her to slay seven men.

Perhaps that would have been too difficult within the approach Monster takes, yet in its own terms it still works very well. It succeeds in turning difficult subject matter into a balanced and thoughtful film that doesn't flinch from the horror of Wuornos' crimes, but paints her as human and not quite the 'monster' of the title. The fact of having a female director no doubt helped to get the balance right, adding a layer of empathy that might have been absent with a male in the chair.

The two-disc set comes packed with a host of extras: an audio commentary by Charlize Theron, Patty Jenkins and producer Clark Petersen, two documentaries, deleted and extended scenes, a filmmaking demo, an interview with Patty Jenkins and composer BT, plus the usual trailers. The three-way commentary is very natural, much like a conversation, and tells of the difficulties posed by the tight shooting schedule, but also how a special chemistry developed between the players, which led to many improvisational magic moments.

Monster, The Vision And The Journey is a 25-minute making-of documentary, including interviews with Patty Jenkins and Charlize Theron, and on-set footage. It shows how the film's story was constructed out of letters between Wuornos and a friend, released to the production shortly before Wuornos' execution. The cast and crew are seen scouting the Daytona locations where Wuornos hung out, including the biker-bar The Last Resort, which was used in the movie. Charlize Theron details how she assimilated Wuornos' character "from the outside in," using the many visual references available to perfect the dialect, posture and body language. Then there was the weight-gain, contact lenses and false teeth, and finally we see the makeup artist painting and airbrushing her face to get that blotchy look just right. It's a well-made and informative companion to the main feature.

The second documentary, The Making Of A Monster, is also full of good stuff. This one focuses more on Aileen Wuornos herself, using footage from news broadcasts and Nick Broomfield's Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer. When you see this material intercut with scenes from Monster, the resemblance between real subject and actor becomes even more remarkable. Patty Jenkins tells of her attempts to win Wuornos' trust, which led eventually to the release of the letters, and Broomfield provides useful detail on the woman he got to know so well. Charlize Theron is shown at a press conference expressing her gratitude for the role, saying it's usually only men such as De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman, who get to play such characters.

The many deleted and extended scenes include a dream sequence, which has a certain charm, but doesn't quite fit the tone of the movie, and so had to go. The 'film-making demo' is an intriguing piece of sound dubbing deconstruction, where the fairground scene is shown with its various elements - dialogue, effects, music, etc. - laid separately and in various partial combinations, but it's of more interest to film students than the general viewer. The interview with Patty Jenkins and composer BT similarly goes into much detail about how the score services the various sections of the film, and gives useful insights into the way composers today write specifically for surround sound. Overall, a very comprehensive set of extras, with enough for even the most ardent fan.
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