Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Sexual Content, and for Pervasive Language
Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Written by: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen & Annie Corley
Serial killer flicks are a dime a dozen. There are typically two approaches that “based on a true story” serial killer movies can take, one of which follows a cop (or team of cops) hunting down the serial killer in question (THE HUNT FOR THE BTK KILLER, FROM HELL, CHILD 44). The other is a slightly exploitative horror movie approach in which we see the title psycho commit his evil deeds and it’s all mostly played up for shock value (TED BUNDY, DAHMER). 2003’s MONSTER is probably the only real-life serial killer story that ever won an Academy Award (Best Actress for Charlize Theron). There’s a reason for that. Instead of treating its darker-than-dark true story as an excuse for a cheap by-the-numbers procedural or hamming it up with shock value, MONSTER is a gritty drama that just happens to be about a serial killer. In this case, that serial killer is prostitute turned murderer Aileen Wuornos.
In 1980’s Florida, hooker Aileen Wuornos enters a gay bar. Through a few drinks, she strikes up a friendship with young Selby Wall. The two hit it off fairly well and begin a relationship. However, their love encounters turbulence when Aileen is raped by her latest client and kills him out of self-defense. Wuornos and Wall take to the road as Aileen tries to keep the crime secret from her lover. In desperate need of money and food, Aileen takes some new clients. Instead of approaching them as a hooker, she’s approaching them as a serial killer and things viciously spiral out of control.
The most obvious thing to praise about MONSTER are the performances, especially seeing that one actress won both an Academy Award and Golden Globe. Charlize Theron makes a startling, convincing transformation on the screen into Aileen Wuornos. The most obvious changes are the physical ones (she gained 30 pounds, wore prosthetic teeth, and shaved her eyebrows), but Theron also delivers a powerhouse of emotion of an insane woman who goes further and further into madness with each passing murder. It’s very apparent that Theron studied footage of Wuornos in how she delivers her lines and captures every minor tick that the real Aileen had.
As far as supporting performances are concerned, Christina Ricci receives slightly less screen time as Selby Wall (based on the real-life counterpart Tyria Moore) and comes off as a hopeless romantic who spirals into heartbreak as her damaged lover reveals a very dark side. The scenes between Theron and Ricci ride the line between a tragic love story and a gritty tale of lovers on the run. Besides these two leading ladies, a well-cast Bruce Dern occasionally shows up as Aileen’s friend and Kane Hodder (the man who played Jason in many FRIDAY THE 13TH installments) pops in for a brief, but important role.
Despite the powerful emotions and tragic love story on display, MONSTER never forgets what it’s actually about. The film has a stark, grimy atmosphere covering every frame. When we see scenes that might otherwise be beautiful in a straight-forward romance, they don’t make us forget about the gruesome crimes that Aileen is committing to keep this life (and lie) alive. The kills themselves aren’t overtly gory or over-the-top. Though we don’t see every single murder that Wuornos commits, the ones that do make it to the screen are harrowing and shocking for the sheer, cold brutality of how they’re executed. These moments become even harder to watch near the end as the victims become more sympathetic and Aileen reveals just how much of a monster she’s become.
I can’t think of a single complaint to give MONSTER. The film is remarkably well executed and more emotional than any real-life serial killer flick probably has the right to be. Playing out more like a heartbreaking drama than anything else, this is a chilling film about the murderous downward spiral of a crazy person. It’s a dark, depressing affair that’s masterfully brought to the screen and I’m surprised that director Patty Jenkins hasn’t really done anything else of note since this (though she’s slated for the upcoming WONDER WOMAN film). Theron earned the two big awards she won with every second of her performance. Though I can’t see myself rewatching it in the near future (for its sheer darkness and the depressing feeling it leaves you with), MONSTER is a true-crime masterpiece!