Friday, July 16, 2004

Monster (2003): A Review

Friday, July 16, 2004
A film by Patty Jenkins
 
Roger Ebert listed “Monster” as the best film of all of 2003.  Charlize Theron won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos.  For months before the Oscars the talk had been about how amazing Theron’s performance was and how not only was it the best performance of the year, it was one of the best performances in years.  This is a lot of high praise that raised my expectations on exactly what it was that I was going to see in “Monster”.
 
“Monster” is based on the true story of Aileen Wuornos.  Aileen lived as a prostitute in Florida and became a serial murderer, killing her prospective clients.  As the film opens, Aileen is sitting under an overpass and is reflecting back on past events, specifically her meeting of Selby (Christina Ricci).  After meeting Selby in a bar, Selby quickly becomes Aileen’s best (and only) friend and also her lover.  They are both very lonely and needy people.  For the love of Selby, Aileen wants to clean up her life, quit hooking, and find a real job so she can support Selby.  Unfortunately for Aileen, she is unable to find a job because she has no work experience, no resume, and a huge chip on her shoulder that prevents anyone in a position to help to even want to help her.  Selby is demanding, telling Aileen that she needs to start hooking again because they don’t have any money, she is hungry, and this is one thing that Aileen can do to support her. 
 
When she is raped by one of her clients, Aileen finally snaps and kills him.  She tells Selby that this was a one time thing, but after this first murder she starts killing and robbing her other clients.  It is at this point where we start to see Aileen crack under the pressure of what her life has become.  She feels that from day one she never stood a chance.  She was sexually abused as a child and by age 13 was pregnant and a prostitute.  This is her life and she has no opportunity to improve her life.  Her experience trying to find a legitimate job is proof of this.  “Monster” is the story of Aileen Wuornos and it is brutal and unflinching. 
 
It is impossible to separate the performance of Charlize Theron from the rest of the movie.  “Monster” is built on the raw power and pain of Theron’s transformation into Aileen Wuornos.  This transformation was both physical and emotional.  Charlize Theron is a strikingly beautiful woman and early in her career the roles she became known for were little more than the beautiful wife/girlfriend/woman (Legend of Bagger Vance, The Devil’s Advocate, The Cider House Rules).  “Monster” required a physical change in the appearance of Theron’s face and the make-up helped change the beautiful Theron into the ugly Wuornos.  The other part of the transformation is that Wuornos was a tormented, pained, and angry woman and this required Theron to not simply be a woman acting but rather to “become” Aileen Wuornos.  She succeeds. 
 
During the first half of the movie I could not figure out why Theron had won the Academy Award for Best Actress.  She had become Aileen, but the performance was nothing terribly impressive for the first fifty minutes.  But when Selby confronts Aileen to return to being a prostitute, that scene nailed it for me and brought Theron’s performance to an entirely new level.  The raw emotion Theron conveyed carried the movie.  The performance became more emotional, angry, vulnerable, fearful, and edgy and at no point did I think that this was Theron acting.  I saw Aileen Wuornos. 
 
The movie itself, without Charlize Theron, did not feel to me that it was telling a story that could not have been told on a made for cable (because of the content) movie.  But the movie is not so much about the plot and about the story, but rather about the performance and transformation of Charlize Theron into Aileen Wuornos.  The performance makes the viewer capable of feeling pity for Aileen without excusing her actions.  I don’t feel that there is any question that Theron deserved the Oscar for “Monster”. 

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