Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Monster

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

MONSTER

7/10

USA (US-Ger) 2003 : Patty JENKINS : 109 mins

The life of Aileen Wuornos – whose murderous late-eighties exploits propelled her to worldwide infamy as America’s “first female serial-killer” – is brought to the screen with careful gravity in writer-director Jenkins’ debut feature Monster. An opening title informs us that the film is “based on a true story,” and the key-word is ‘based’: there’s no attempt at ‘period’ detail in this relatively low-budget US-German co-production, events unfolding in what looks like a modern-day version of the US.

A key character, Selby (Christina Ricci) is a fictionalised composite of Wuornos’s real-life girlfriends. And though star Charlize Theron is made to look very much like the Wuornos familiar from Nick Broomfield’s two documentaries on her case, Jenkins’ script is scrupulous to avoid ever actually using her by her full name (though it does appear in the end-credits scroll), with Theron’s character instead referred to throughout as “Lee”. Even during the brief, elliptical courtroom scenes at the end of the film, the words ‘Aileen Wuornos’ are conspicuous by their absence.

Why the evasiveness? Presumably Jenkins was trying to emphasise the fact that much of what goes on is the result of screenwriter’s license: certainly, in the numerous scenes involving hooker Lee and the ‘johns’ she murders, Jenkins would only have had Wuornos’s own (perhaps unreliable) testimony to go on. And even in the less bloody scenes, those tracing the jagged development of Lee and Selby’s relationship, it’s clear that what we’re seeing is only a speculative version of actual events: the real-life individual on whom Selby is mostly based has been vocal in her criticisms of the project.

Leaving questions of verisimilitude aside, however, Monster does function as a drama: an unlikely, touching but doomed romance that spirals into tragedy. Emerging as something of a cross between Boys Don’t Cry and Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (though falling a little short of both in execution), the film is an uncompromising journey into an extremely hard life. But while Jenkins painstakingly lays out the social, economic and psychological factors that led Wuornos to her murderous fate, it’s clear that the film in no way seeks to excuse or justify her actions. Apart, that is, from her first ‘victim’ – a violent rapist here named Vincent Corey (Lee Tergsesen) – whose death, if Lee/Wuornos is to be believed, was a definite case of self-defence.

Jenkins and Theron’s most impressive achievement is the way they allow the viewer to retain some degree of understanding for Lee, even as her homicidal activities become more and more unjustifiable. As Lee sees it, life has backed her into a desperate corner where killing for money becomes the only viable option: in a way, she’s proud and surprised by the fact that murder is one of the very few things she can do very well. As her opening voice-over states, Lee always dreamed of fortune and fame as a movie-star – glamour-girl Theron, though seemingly ‘gimmick’, Oscar-bait casting (a la Halle Berry from the inferior Monster’s Ball), is in fact an inspired choice. From certain angles the hard-faced Lee does justify Selby’s comments about her beauty – the implication being that, given different circumstances, this woman could have developed into a glamorous ‘stunner’ in the Theron mould (cf the fates of Amy Smart’s character from The Butterfly Effect.)

As it is, Lee/Wuornos discovered that her talents lay in an altogether different directions. As either a hooker or a killer, Lee is certainly never plagued by conscience: as she recounts in an anecdote about her childhood, she’s always more perturbed by relatively trivial ‘ordeals’ such as the ferris-wheel which gives the movie its title. Because while Lee/Wuornous’s actions were indeed monstrous, Jenkins and Theron ensure that the character herself is never an inhuman ‘monster’ entirely undeserving of our sympathies. This is part of the reason why, despite intermittent touches of dark humour, their film is one of such genuine and wrenching sadness.

21st April, 2004
(seen 20th April : Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne : public show)

by Neil Young