Starring Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci. Rated 18A.
Opens Friday, January 16, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas
Usually when a fictionalized film competes with a documentary, the truth kicks Hollywood's ass. But two versions can deepen the viewer's appreciation of each, even if the tactics (or facts) are in fundamental conflict. That happened with Boys Don't Cry and its immediate antecedent, The Brandon Teena Story. The disturbing new Monster covers similarly provincial-gothic territory, with some semirelated gender twists.
Essentially, it leaves off where Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, from muckrakers Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill, picks up. That documentary, completed after Aileen Wuornos was executed in late 2002, is Broomfield's second kick at the subject in a decade, after Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Here, writer-director Patty Jenkins stays away from much of the material laid out in the docs. Consequently, viewers who only see Monster will not know that the Michigan-born Wuornos, convicted for the roadside slayings of seven Florida men, was molested by members of her own family, then abandoned at 13, left to turn tricks for survival and to live in a hollow in the woods that would have made Saddam Hussein's "spider hole" look palatial. Once convicted, she was "adopted" by a fortune-seeking fundamentalist while prosecutors and the cops who arrested her tried to cut movie-of-the-week deals. And Wuornos eventually recanted the self-defence version of events depicted in Monster, later recanting the recantation as well.
Jenkins, choosing not to dwell on the victimhood angle, takes a down-the-middle stand that forces you to accept her antihero's outsize character without much context. Ironically, although familiarity with the docs undermines her approach in places, it actually makes Charlize Theron's performance, in the demanding lead role, even more convincing. The former model from South Africa, never especially known for her acting skills, could be accused of overcompensating--what with the celebrated weight gain, false teeth, and prosthetic aids. The fact is, she gets Wuornos exactly right: the narcissistic hair toss, the Mussolini permafrown, and especially those frightened eyes with a glimmer of childish naiveté behind them.
Christina Ricci, as the more fictionalized Selby Wall, Aileen's first female lover and full-time enabler, is more fuzzily devised and delivered. Still, Wall's intense interest in the swaggering Wuornos, wherever it was really coming from, represents the latter's last hopes for something like real human connection, and it triggers the latter's innate megalomania that quickly morphs into violent rage at both the men who abused her over the decades and the dreams forever beyond her reach.
The movie, which trails off with a whimper, is short on psychology: if anything, the real Wuornos was nuttier than the plenty deranged one riveting our attention here. But Jenkins leaves you with many images that are hard to shake. Particularly piercing is the long shot of Wuornos, standing in a wood grove after her first killing; you can't tell if she's peering through cigarette smoke, dank Florida mist, or the cloud cover of an avenging angel. Because her expression is ultimately so human, it's more frightening than anything in any horror movie.