dir: Patty Jenkins
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This isn’t a story about the redemptive power of love. It isn’t a story where everything will work out all right in the end. It is, in essence, a sad love story all the same.
It would seem to contradict the advertising and many of the reviews already written about the film. Its two main selling points were the fact that Charlize Theron won the Academy award for Best Actress for 2003 in the role, oh, and she happens to play a serial killer. And seeing as it is based on the life and times of Aileen Wuornos, convicted and recently executed killer, you’d think the focus would be more on the killings than any other elements. At its heart, however, it’s about a horribly damaged woman and her desperate attempts at finding some happiness in a world that had guaranteed her thus far a life of ceaseless misery.
For all those people that claim the film excuses her actions and seems to justify them when it attempts to humanise the character that Theron embodies, I have to say, they’re trying really hard to be deliberate fuckwits. I don’t mean people who didn’t like the film itself. I’m never going to criticise a person for not holding the same opinion about a film as myself, that’s just idiotic because film, like everything else in existence, is so subjective. I mean those people that have tut tutted and clucked their tongues because they claim the film is an exercise in apologetics giving justifications and excuses for a person that doesn’t deserve them. I feel like asking them how they manage to read or write anything when their blinkers are strapped on so goddamn tight around their heads. Doesn’t it cut off the circulation?
By humanising her, by making her worthy of our pity it does not imply that we should absolve her for her crimes or her sins. I have nothing to forgive her for, and she certainly doesn’t need my absolution. Perhaps all she is asking for is my understanding, at least a moment’s consideration. That isn’t beyond me, and it certainly isn’t beyond the filmmakers and the performers involved in terms of evoking that remarkably well on the screen. But let’s not forget the apparent crucial facts: she killed seven men, one at least the film clearly imputes was in self-defence, but all the others were what we call “innocent”. We’re under no illusions about her actions, even if she is. We are privy to her choices, her decisions, and we see her for what she is. That doesn’t mean we approve of what she’s does. In fact whilst watching it, despite knowing what I knew about the story, I still desperately hoped at certain points that she wouldn’t do what was clearly inevitable. To watch a person do the unthinkable again and again, and to be okay with it, it’s shocking to any reasonable audience member, which is also why it’s so compelling.
It is possible to sympathise with someone despite the extent of their crimes. Even the most horrific crimes, of which murder is certainly in the top one hundred. Unlikely, but possible. It’s not killing someone that’s the issue, because any film fan has watched at least a thousand films over the course of their lives where they watch with glee or boredom plenty of people kill other people. We live in a world where the decision to end another person’s life, for whatever reason, is made by fuckers every day. The source of our confusion, or our horror comes from the situation where the decision to kill is made for more tenuous motivations and contexts that we are used to. Money and sexual jealousy are the most common reasons given, at least on television. That has pretty much reached the limits of what they can show us, really. When you think of the combinations and permutations of it that you’ve seen thus far in your life, and think about how many more you’re likely to see, it really should make you wonder why we and ‘they’ keep bothering.
It’s also possible to both revile someone for the things that they’ve done and to acknowledge them as the deeply flawed beings that they are, to want to try to understand the path that they took and how life shaped it. Some people feel that it is an insult to the victims of crime and their surviving families when something like this is made which asks people to look at the story from the point of view of the killer, to understand aspects of their lives in order to form some kind of idea as to how they got to that point where the unthinkable became possible. I can’t argue with those people. I don’t think the families of Wuorno’s victims or anyone else closely affected by such crimes are ever going to find anything redeemable or of worth in this film or films like it, and I can appreciate that.
But of course I’m going to approach it from a different point of view. The film does spend more time humanising the lead character than you ordinarily expect from a story about a serial killer. But the film’s subject and its novelty factor are what necessitate the difference, surely.
There is no shortage of films about serial killers, obviously. The last hundred years or so of cinema is overflowing with examples that range from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous. There are plenty of average mystery thrillers, police procedurals, turgid psychodramas and by-the-numbers pot boilers out there clogging up cinemas, the shelves of video / DVD stores and people’s vid collections. There should be a law against it, I reckon. As two examples of the genre, we can mention movies like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (the 1990 film directed by John McTiernan regarding the real life exploits of complete nutters Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole) and, of course, The Silence of the Lambs, with everyone’s favourite fictional cannibal, Hannibal Lecter. Of the two, this here Monster tends closer to the former rather than the latter. I am surprising myself by typing this, but Monster is also a better film than both the former and the latter.
I mean, in the serial killer stakes, Wuornos isn’t up there with the worst of them. Taking the American fascination with serial killers into consideration seriously, she’s only really a big deal because of her gender. People find it worthy of note because of its ironic nature: serial killers are renowned for preying on prostitutes, and now in this case a woman who worked as a prostitute turns the tables and becomes the serial killer. Only recently in the States the infamous Green River killer, who butchered women for decades, was finally caught and brought to justice. He probably ended the lives of over fifty women, most of whom worked as prostitutes. The more cynical out there have often implied that had the victims been people that society didn’t treat as lesser beings then maybe he’d have been caught a decade or two sooner.
Much was made of Charlize Theron’s transformation into the character of Lee, as she’s called in the film. Personally I couldn’t give a fuck about any of those details, and I think the bizarre manner in which an actress is seen as giving a ‘better’ performance than another actress because she lets the makeup and wardrobe people make her look ‘ugly’, when she’s oh so beautiful is a bit fucking hypocritical. Yeah, so she’s deliberately looking like a mess. Big deal. If that’s all it took they could have gotten any homeless person to play the role, and they would have been more grateful, and would have saved a few bucks on makeup and prosthetics. They could have then given this pocket change to the homeless people, who could then spend it on necessities like Faberge eggs and a new Mercedes or two.
The fact is that try as she might, without taking a brick to Charlize’s head, there’s no way she could ever look as bad as the real Aileen Wuornos. If anyone ever looked as hard as the life that they’d led, it was certainly that woman. It is, despite my long standing hatred of religion, almost enough to make you want to embrace the Lord Jesus or Allah all over again out of mortal dread. She looked like your worst hangover multiplied a hundredfold, like the most burnt out soul that you’ll ever be lucky enough to never see again.
So the real merit for me isn’t in the dentures, the bad hairstyles and the tassel-fringed boots, it’s in the remarkably abrasive and complicated performance she puts in. The physicality of the role and the character, which Theron takes on and owns, is truly inspired. I’ve seen Theron in multiple movies in the past, and none of her performances ever made a positive impression upon me. In fact I’m ashamed to say that I’d written her off as one of the millions of models turned actresses who need to get real jobs in porn and to stop wasting our time on the screens of cinemas where the carpets are sticky because of wholesome, G rated reasons.
I take back every nasty thing I’ve ever said about her. In fact, I remember when I started disliking her intensely, it was in Taylor Hackford’s egregious stupidity fest The Devil’s Advocate a bunch of years ago. Guilt by association alone, it would seem. She’s more than made up for it now, I’m not ashamed to say.
Here she manages the seemingly impossible: to create a character that I could sympathise with and feel sorry for, despite the fact that she is a spectacularly unsympathetic character. I know, it’s a contradiction in terms, but it’s the best way I have to explain it with words.
What actors basically have to do in their self-designated role as the court jesters in our lives, apart from entertain us, goddamn it, is ‘sell’. Just like in retail, they have a product to sell, and they sell it to us plebs in the audience. If they’re good salespeople, not only do we buy what they’re selling, but we don’t even realise that we’ve engaged in a transaction at all. Charlize sells it completely. She gives the role everything she’s got. I doubt she’ll ever do another role like this ever again, considering how she’s joined that ‘prestige’ club of actresses who’ve paid their dues and now get to pick and choose their money and their roles. And no longer do nudity. At least for the next few years, until Hollywood decides that at 40 that they’ve outlived their usefulness and has them put down to make room for some 16 year old bubbleheads.
She manages to convey the world-weariness, the seething rage, the arrogant stupidity, the blustering self-delusion, the murderous sociopathy and the protective gentleness that are all potentially facets of the person that her character is based on. It may seem counterproductive to my argument to write this, but I somewhat doubt that its an accurate portrayal of what Wuornos was really like, I’m too cynical to believe that most writers are capable of summarising a person that well. And the fact is I don’t really care. The performance is so powerful that it overshadows what I already know about her in real life, but doesn’t replace it. This is art, after all, and has different objectives in being artistically successful than a documentary or some other genre pic has.
In this context the film succeeds if it gives us a believable representation of a person, even a monstrous person, in the form of a character study that works for and against its main character. In that there is much to say in their favour, and for the sake of truthfulness, also much to say in terms of what irredeemable fuckups they may have been.
As I implied at review’s beginning, it’s not so much a story about Aileen and the people that she killed, it’s more about the relationship between Aileen and her only source of happiness (as far as the film is concerned), a young girl called Selby, played by Christina Ricci. She meets Selby when at a thoroughly low point in her life, and though not apparently a lesbian previous, in her she finds some measure of acceptance and affection that she has lacked her entire life.
Sexually abused from eight years of age, beaten regularly by her prick of a grandfather, ‘turned out’ at age thirteen to earn some green on the streets, disowned by her family, by the time she meets Selby, Lee is a mess of a woman but a hardened survivor. In comparison Selby is a naïve kid battling the expectations of her fundamentalist family and her confusing (for her, not for us) sexuality. As well, neither of them is particularly bright, so the lies each tells the other brings comfort instead of conflict. Their prospects are dim, their chances of achieving the modest goals they set for each other are never going to happen, because of who they are, where they are in life, because they have few tools to deal with the machinations of life in the ‘real’ world where the rest of us desperately scramble to remain a part of and generally succeed. All that the weak, co-dependant Selby has to offer Lee is her need and devotion, and Lee’s contribution is in the form of the only currency she possesses: sex as a commodity in order to get cash. And finally as the only emotional intimacy that she is capable of. Especially since sex itself for her own pleasure has become so meaningless.
We see Lee’s transition from lonely victim to conscienceless killer, and we are surprised that she ever got away with it for as long as she did. To label Lee’s trajectory a downward spiral would imply that she somehow started off in a place from which she could sink further, which seems unlikely, but somehow she manages it. Selby as well has a trajectory, moving from needy co-dependant to nagging bitch of a girlfriend that (for my money) only pretends to be ignorant of what is really going on, and also renounces any and all responsibility in the proceedings.
It is sad to watch their relationship as it flowers and eventually dies. As unlike as any two people can be, and as a pair of fairly daft fuckers, there is still a poignancy to their exchanges, to their need reflected in each other’s eyes. They both deserve to be commended for making it so believable. Though Theron received the plaudits, Ricci puts in good work as a simpleton unsure what to do about anything, who’s so lonely, inexperienced and ineffectual that she latches onto the first seemingly strong person that comes along. It’s just in this case it happens to be a serial killer. It could have been worse, it could have been a lawyer. Or even a bass player!
There is a scene in particular which broke my heart that highlights the emotional core of the film. Selby has decided she wants to expand her horizons and wants to go with some other people her own age on a trip to a carnival. Lee tags along, but clearly is out of place, and Selby’s intentions towards another woman are as obvious to Lee as they are to us. But she toughs it out, and waits for her. In voiceover she tells us of her capacity for love, and I believed her wholeheartedly. The scene could have worked without it, because Theron conveys enough of the emotions we need to see in her face and body language as she watches Selby on one of the rides. It’s almost enough to make you forget what the woman is capable of.
Voiceovers in general bore me to fucking tears. I generally differentiate quite easily between its gratuitous use in certain films and its necessary or inventive use in others. It is well used here. They give us insights into a deeply disturbed woman, random fragments admittedly but ones that illuminate aspects of her character other than what could just as easily been represented in dialogue on the screen. The explanation of the film’s title is a good example of that, seeing as it fulfils several functions apart from relating an event in Lee’s early life. The Monster that we believe the title refers to isn’t necessarily the one wearing acid wash jeans. Wearing them is only one of the many awful crimes she was guilty of, apparently.
It’s a well made film, it treats its protagonist with enough respect to convince us that her story is worth knowing about, but not so much that we excuse her actions. The performances are so painfully awkward, real and spot on that they elevate what could have been melodramatic made-for-tv crap into something transcendent. It achieved a virtually impossible task; it broke my heart and had me begging (in my mind, not like some crazy person yelling out loud in the cinema) the main character to make choices I knew she could not make, and had me lamenting a world that creates people like this. We can argue nature versus nurture until the fucking cows come home and kill us all because they came from single parent families or smoked dope or because of gay marriages or something similarly idiotic, but you have to wonder how people get to such an awful place in their lives that they develop a taste for killing other people. It’s still the single worst crime we are capable of, the crime of annihilation, which is why it stills fascinates us, and makes films like this (very rarely) a genuinely affecting experience. So it should remain.
8 times out of 10 you’ll wish there was a different outcome to her story, but you’ll be glad all the same that she isn’t around anymore.
"OK, great. That's great. See, now I'm so sorry I didn't hire you before." - Monster