Talk about your extreme makeovers. Charlize Theron’s alarming transformation into prostitute-turned-serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster is so remarkably convincing, you almost forget you’re watching an actress playing a part in a movie.
One of Hollywood’s more recent glamour gals, Theron has turned in fairly solid performances in The Cider House Rules, The Italian Job and a handful of Woody Allen’s lesser films. But who knew she had it in her to do this? Patty Jenkins, clearly. The film’s writer and director, Jenkins coaxes a harrowing, affecting performance from Theron that teeters uneasily between poignant despair and searing rage.
To witness Theron with eyebrows shorn, profoundly freckled, splotchy skin, teeth crooked and tobacco-stained, mane of hair limp and stringy, and body flabby and slightly unseemly is at first something of a curiosity. But thoughts of Theron quickly disappear as the character of Wuornos fully emerges. The actress takes up full residency in this troubled, tragic lost soul. There’s an astringent quality to Theron’s Wuornos — tough, scowling, hardened by life, eyes a piercing pitch black — and the character picks up a blazing, almost fearsome intensity as she begins to avenge her own misery in life by murdering the anonymous johns she meets along a Florida highway.
Jenkins explores the motivating factors for Wuornos’s descent from prostitute to killer, including her emerging relationship with Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a young lesbian who takes a romantic shine to the highway hooker and who ultimately looks to her as a provider and companion. Wuornos, who claims not to be a lesbian, is nonetheless drawn by the magnetic promise of unconditional, genuine love. It’s the movie’s most compelling underlying point — that love is not a cure-all, but rather a corruptor that can drive one to extremes in an effort to keep it alive.
Wuornos was executed last year in Florida after being convicted of six murders, which she claimed to have committed in self-defense. The movie examines the killer’s own sense of delusion and desperation, depicting her as a damaged woman who becomes an avenging angel of sorts. Following a harrowing encounter with a john who means to rape and murder her, Wuornos snaps. And after failing to get a legitimate job — one of the most poignant sequences in the film is her progression of demeaning and ultimately frustrating job interviews (“I know how to work a Rolodex, ” she says to one prospective employer) — her rage swells and her mission seems virtually imminent.
Wuornos goes on a moral cleansing spree, but the underlying reason for the murders is her attempt raise enough money to buy a beachfront house in the Keys for Selby. Wuornos is not heartless, her crimes are not always remorse-free, and there are two key scenes with potential victims that depict her as not having lost complete touch with humanity.
Despite her naivetÃ©, Selby is attracted to the trauma that fuels Wuornos’s life. Unfortunately, it’s never made clear why Selby sticks around, other than as a form of rebellion against a Bible-thumping family seeking to cure their daughter’s homosexuality.
Filmed simply and economically (there are only a handful of locales), Monster envelopes you in its own grime. Jenkins’ austere approach well-suits her subject matter — by the end you feel as though you’ve inhabited Wuornos’s world, and that you have good idea of what even the most hopeless life is like. In that respect, Monster deserves a spot alongside other similar forays, including Hector Babenco’s heartbreaking Pixote and John McNaughton’s horrifying Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which remains, quite possibly, the most disturbing film ever made. Monster isn’t as horrifying as Henry, but it has plenty of moments of edgy unease and psyche-shattering intensity.
Watching Theron makes you believe that even the most glamorous of stars has an actress burrowed within, aching to burst free. It just takes an unstoppable determination and a willingness to go all the way into the soul of another. The result, at least in Theron’s case, is a masterpiece of a performance that simultaneously haunts, mesmerizes and repels you.