A frighteningly human ‘Monster’Probably not everyone who sees it in Korea will fully appreciate what the actress Charlize Theron accomplishes in “Monster,” because not everyone is familiar with what’s known in America as a truck-stop hooker. Theron plays not just a prostitute, but one who works outdoors ― in parking lots, in the woods, in an endless succession of strangers’ cars.
Imagine how years and years of such a life would affect a person, and you have Theron’s character, Aileen “Lee” Wuornos, a horrifying piece of human wreckage, loud and belligerent, her face a leathery skull. Here is someone to instinctively recoil from, and that’s before you even know she’s a serial killer.
Aileen Wuornos was a real person, executed two years ago for murdering seven men in Florida during the 1980s, most of them johns who’d pulled off the road to buy her services. The wonder of “Monster” isn’t that it makes you feel empathy for such a person ― empathy is easy ― but that it does so without softening her deeds, or prettying her up.
Theron’s performance won her the Academy Award for best actress; America’s most famous critic, Roger Ebert, went so far as to call it “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.” Some of this might have to do with the adulation that automatically accrues to a beautiful and well-known actress who makes herself look less attractive. (Whoever did Theron’s makeup was some sort of wizard; even in close-ups, her skin has the rough, windburned look of a life lived mostly outdoors.)
That said, it’s an astonishing performance, one that will ring chimes of recognition for anybody who’s spent enough time in grimy American bars. There’s a kind of defiant rooster strut you sometimes see in full-time tavern dwellers ― people who’ll talk until your head goes numb about the latest injustice done to them by a boss or a judge or an ex-husband, shrill with indignation at the unfairness of everything, their eyes pleading with you to believe it. Theron nails it. Her Wuornos is all chin-jutting pride, but there’s terror in the eyes.
When she meets and falls in love with Selby (Christina Ricci), a sort-of-runaway teenager, Wuornos starts to hope ― for the first time since childhood, one suspects ― for a life that isn’t horrible. Having seen “Monster,” I now have to say that one of the most exhilaratingly romantic sequences I’ve seen in a movie this year involved a teenage girl and an aging prostitute rollerskating together to the Journey song “Don’t Stop Believing.” (I’m not aware that Ricci has gotten as much notice for her role as Theron has, but it’s a superb, understated performance.)
It’s when these hopes surface, and Wuornos lets go of her hard defensiveness with Selby, that she becomes sympathetic, almost childlike. And it’s when she starts trying to find a “normal” life ― when, for instance, she dresses herself up, bicycles to a law firm and applies for a job “as a lawyer” ― that she becomes a tragic figure. The rage bubbles up not long after that.
This is a film about life among America’s most wretched, and anyone who’s lived there will recognize how accurately the filmmakers have caught the particular ugliness of this stratum of society. What’s amazing is the beauty they find in it, if only for a few minutes, before Aileen Wuornos enters into hell.
Drama / English
An unrecognizable Charlize Theron (right) stars as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster,” with Christina Ricci.
by David Moll