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Aileen Wuornos wanted to be a movie star when she grew up. Instead, she murdered seven men and was executed by lethal injection on October 9, 2002. In-between the year of her birth (1956) and that fateful final cocktail of “humane” poisons, her schizophrenic father (whom she never met) hung himself in prison after abandoning her and her mother, Diane. Diane then left Aileen and her older brother, Keith, with their alcoholic grandfather, who legally adopted them and began sexually assaulting ‘Leen on a routine basis. At age eleven, she started sucking and fucking the boys at school in exchange for cigarettes, food and money. After her grandpa’s drinking buddy raped and impregnated her, Aileen gave birth at fourteen and was subsequently tossed out of her legal guardian’s house at fifteen, where she continued to whore herself out in order to make ends meet. Yet in every John’s eyes she saw the stars, hoping against all reason that this would be the one who’d save the down and out prostitute, delivering her to fame’s doorstep – the tarnished white of the Hollywood sign still visible from her awful Florida existence.
In the hands of writer/director Patty Jenkins, Wuornos’ miserable tale becomes a morbid companion piece to both Bob Fosse’s skeevy chronicle of doomed Playboy Centerfold Dorothy Stratten (Star 80), and John McNaughton’s startlingly direct fictionalization of Chicago serial murderer, Henry Lee Lucas (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer). Wuornos’ eventual crimes – all Johns, whose fleeting “potential” is replaced by demonic menace, courtesy of a brutal rape at her first victim’s hands – are presented with chilly bluntness. Only there’s no Paul Snider or Hugh Hefner to exploit ‘Leen’s dreams and then rip them away via large caliber brutality. Monster (’03) narratively warps the events surrounding the hooker’s wrathful stretch in Daytona Beach and surrounding shit-kicker country, as Charlize Theron throws on high-waisted jeans and tattered trucker gear, getting soaked in the streets of this rainy landscape before falling in love with Selby Wall (Christina Ricci, portraying a heavily altered version of Wuornos’ real-life lover, Tyria Moore) at a roller rink blaring Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin”. Together, a new dream is born – one of supposed normalcy and domestic bliss, even as ‘Leen continues to trick and blast her male clientele, each moment of bloodshed becoming increasingly self-righteous.
The most obvious place to begin discussing Monster is with Theron’s manic, white trash barracuda of a central performance. While Theron won the Academy Award for Best Actress, her literally transformative turn has been criticized in hindsight for igniting a trend of actors ostentatiously “ugly-ing themselves up” so that they can be “taken more seriously” as a performer. No doubt, up until this point in her career, Theron was a bombshell starlet starring in mostly comedic studio tripe like Trial and Error, Mighty Joe Young and Waking Up in Reno, or acting as a Hitchcockian platinum femme fatale in occasionally diverting B-Movie riffs like 2 Days in the Valley, Reindeer Games and Fifteen Minutes. Her talent and screen presence were obvious, and even stole whole scenes in this lurid pulp (see: The Devil’s Advocate for the best example), but Theron also seemed to be another case of Hollywood just not knowing what the hell to do with a talented, beautiful actress besides attempting to mold her into a romantic interest or quirky pretty girl. With Mad Max’s Furiosa now in mind, the early years of her career are a bummer, and not because Charlize was delivering anything remotely approaching dreadful performances. Drastic times and all – the naked visage, bleached eyebrows and scorched hair were necessary for her to shed the luminous skin that blinded dumbbell producers and casting directors. To wit, don’t criticize the method, but rather the system that rendered such measures necessary.
Nevertheless, no matter how much weight Theron gained, or how obvious the prosthetic teeth she’s donning are, Wuornos’ truth is found in her eyes. The movie star is still in every dilapidated motel room and Olds Cutlass, trying to work up enough spit so that she can satisfy her sixth highway wolf of the evening. Anyone who’s seen Nick Broomfield’s documentaries (Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer) will instantly recognize that Theron’s iteration of this psychologically broken woman is significantly different from the Wuornos who received six death sentences in 1993. Where the real Aileen suffered from borderline personality and antisocial disorders, bidding the world adieu to board the mothership from Independence Day upon being put down, Theron’s ‘Leen is closer to the feral animal who blamed society for “railroading her” during a final on-camera interview. Her portrayal borders on becoming a lethal Southern sister to Abel Ferrara’s deaf mute reaper in Ms. 45, shooting down men who haven’t committed a crime beyond paying for her sex. But because each of their faces reflect the demons who tore her insides for their sick pleasure, they had to die. No matter what judgment may come from Selby or anyone else, Aileen’s uncovered a righteous sense of purpose in her weapon, and becomes an addict for punishing those who (at least in her fractured psyche) embody all who did her wrong.
Where Theron is all hillbilly fire and brimstone, Ricci’s lost little preacher’s girl is a meek bit of anti-performance that’s slightly more difficult to crack. Selby is simply looking for someone to love her; tired of being told that her homosexuality is an abomination by her father, who keeps nagging and wanting to bring his daughter back to Ohio so that he can “cure” her. With a wonky mullet and trademark doe orbs, Ricci channels a melancholy desperation that at first puts Aileen on guard, but then softens and extracts a love the killer possibly never realized she was capable of (at least during this invented timeline). We know their arrangement will never work, but the miracle of Jenkins’ film is the false faith in “love conquers all” it manages to instill in every audience member. Where ‘Leen’s been battered, violated, and left for dead, Selby’s preference renders her an outcast and target for controlling men, hoping to bring her back to heterosexual “status quo”. Jenkins’ script draws a shaky spiritual parallel between the two regarding how men collectively want to define and exploit their respective sex in different ways. So, it only makes sense that Aileen and Selby take refuge in one another’s arms, and Ricci’s performance – an imitation of a wilted flower looking to bloom during a hurricane – acts as a delicate counterpoint to Theron’s increasingly bombastic histrionics.
A recent Hollywood Reporter piece thoroughly profiled Jenkins, stating that Warner Bros. “gambled” on hiring her for Wonder Woman due to the relative inexperience her resume displays (it’s been fourteen years since Monster, an $8 million indie). But where that publication is making a suspect (and frankly sexist) argument amidst an industrial cape complex that advances the Colin Trevorrows of the world with reckless abandon, her employment on the DCEU’s only worthwhile endeavor thus far is still a risk from the standpoint that she’s a real filmmaker, not some former sitcom workman looking to churn out another disposable serialized entry. Monster is a movie about how a male dominated society degrades and crushes the dreams of its women, forcing them to lose hope in both their lesser halves as well their place in the universe entirely. Aileen Wuornos was doomed from the moment her father passed his genes on to her, and received treatment from almost all men she encountered that made it near impossible to believe there were exceptions to his rule. It’s an apocalyptic leveling of hope that Jenkins performs with her big screen debut, so the fact that she’s restoring it via an icon such as Diana Prince only seems fair and right. We need filmmakers like Patty Jenkins behind the camera, assuring us that not all is lost, and that women can soar higher than men once freed from their oppressive shackles.