Monster (review)

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Well, it’s official. All you aspiring actresses coming on the bus to Movieland from Iowa or Kansas? You might as well turn around right now and go home. Unless you look like a supermodel, of course. Cuz The Movie’s “No Fat Chicks/No Ugly Chicks” sign has been given a new spit-and-polish. Oh, it’s not that they won’t make the odd film about fat or ugly chicks, or even just ordinary-looking chicks without supernatural cheekbones and with enough body fat to actually menstruate, it’s just that they’ll hire gorgeous, statuesque, rail-thin blondes who’ll gain artistic weight and sit for three hours of makeup in order to look like a mere mortal, like the way the rest of us look all the time. And everyone involved will applaud themselves and pat themselves on the back for the “bravery” required and the “realism” achieved.

A film about a real person, unless we’re talking about the Elephant Man, should not be in the running for an Oscar for Best Makeup.

Look, I don’t mean to pick on Charlize Theron, who actually has some talent to go with her supernatural beauty and who, by all accounts, was a hands-on, genuine working producer on Monster, but a line has to be drawn somewhere. And here it is, across writer/director Patty Jenkins absurd little film, which has nothing going for it except half a performance from Theron.

Half, because as much as it’s obvious that Theron was dedicated to the craft and intent upon getting inside the mind of a madwoman/victim/enigma, you cannot help but spend the entire running time saying to yourself, Holy crap, that’s Charlize Theron? How did they do that?

What they did was turn this impossibly gorgeous actress into the near spitting image of Aileen Wuornos, who was executed in October 2002 for serial murder. And if you’ve seen either or both of Nick Broomfield’s documentaries about her — last year’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer and 1992’s Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer* — then you know what she was like: an expansive and unrestrained personality behind a face old before its time, ravaged by sun and booze and all sorts of abuse. Psychotic, probably. Full of rage, definitely. Not a well woman by any measure, and wouldn’t have been even if she’d never committed multiple murders.

So Theron (The Italian Job, Trapped) stomps around, brandishing like a weapon her prosthetic Aileen dentures and her 87 layers of airbrushed-on bad Aileen skin and the daring 35 Aileen pounds she gained. And you can see that’s she really, really into it, really, really inhabiting Wuornos, trying to embody this woman and her confused sexuality and her fury at the world that won’t give her break, and succeeding, mostly.

But Jenkins won’t let Theron have her success, shoehorns her leading actress — who’s trying so hard, honestly, don’t hate her because she’s beautiful — into a bad script that’s too intimate and yet not revealing enough. It’s partly based on letters that the real Wuornos wrote from prison to a friend describing her life of horror — physical, emotion, and sexual abuse, prostitution, murder, etc. — and the disfunctional relationship she had with Selby Wall (here played by Christina Ricci: Bless the Child, Sleepy Hollow)… and you can’t help but think, Wait. This woman was some kind of crazy — how can we trust what she says about herself? How can we trust either the facts or the emotions of those letters?

Now, surely, there would be truth to be found in such letters… a reading-between-the-lines kind of truth in which how the letters say what they’re saying says more than what they’re saying, if you see what I’m saying. But Monster plays it all so straightforwardly that there are no corners to see around, no curtains we might be on the verge of drawing back. And so what happens is that the whole film plays like a parody of itself. With no subtext, there’s no way to react except with laughter to scenes in which, say, Wuornos, for whom the closest thing to a real job has been blowing skanky guys for money in their muscle cars, declares that she wants a career and trudges, in a Salvation Army approximation of a business suit, to interviews for jobs for which she is patently unqualified. Did Wuornos really do this? Was it merely a fantasy, even if it was one she saw as so unachievable she crushes it herself in her imagination? Theron gets Wuornos’s despair across, but Jenkins doesn’t know what to do with it. And we’re left thinking, No way is that really Charlize…

It’s so ridiculous that the best outcome for Monster that I can see is a second career in which it becomes known as a midnight-movie, camp-classic, lesbian road flick. That’s where movies in which the antiheroine gets aggressive in public and appears to be channeling Beetlejuice belong.

*Which was, ironically, about how Wuornos may have been kinda railroaded at the hands of law-enforcement types who were hoping to sell their stories to Hollywood. Which they’d only be able to do if they made sure she was labeled “America’s first female serial killer.” Which makes you wonder what Broomfield thinks of this film…

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