February 12, 2004


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Red carpets are not intended for snowstorms. Says who? For the premiere of Monster at the Cumberland Four in Toronto, Charlize Theron decided the show would go on as usual — red carpet and all. This comes as no surprise for anyone who has seen Monster.

Monster tells the real-life story of Aileen Wuornos (1956-2002), christened “America’s first female serial killer.” A highway prostitute, who achieved iconic status in the American consciousness when, during a nine month period between 1989 and 1990, she became involved in a relationship with a woman named Selby Wall and began murdering her clientele of semi-truck drivers. But the movie is more about Theron than anything else.

The South African-born model and ballet dancer came to the U.S. to pursue her ballet career with the Joffrey Ballet only to injure her knee. The serendipitous injury brought her to L.A., where she tried her hand at acting and soon turned up in MGM’s 2 Days in the Valley. Of late, she has appeared in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Men of Honor, Reindeer Games, The Yards, Sweet November, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Waking Up in Reno, and The Italian Job. Even as a much sought-after actress, her parts lacked depth — cast in the role of the femme fatale. Theron finally flexes her acting muscle, shedding her typecast in Monster. Assuming the dual role of co-producer and star, Theron parallels Salma Hayek’s own work on her pet-project Frida.

In Monster, Theron gets under the skin of Wuornos both literally and figuratively. Much has already been made of Theron’s metamorphosis: reports are that she gained between sixteen and twenty-five pounds and endured hours of makeup at the hands of artist Toni G. for her portrayal of Wuornos. While such transformations are no longer uncommon in Hollywood today, what makes this biopic feel more like an autobiopic is Theron’s acting. Her disciplined ballet training evidently informs this performance. Throwing her head back, tossing her shoulders and thrusting out her chest — all while smoking and swearing like a pro as if her life depended on it — Theron, South Africa’s sweetheart, exhaustively and convincingly assumes gesticulations that may at first glance shock. (I myself do not know if I’ve entirely reconciled myself to it). Even Theron’s voiceovers, which usually sound a lame note for most actors, ring true.

When we meet Christina Ricci as Selby Wall, a young woman sent away by her parents in order to “cure her homosexuality,” she is already but an afterthought. Unable to match the intensity of Theron, their chemistry, inevitably, suffers. In a love scene that features the only glamour shot from Theron in the movie — a perfect breast — a modest Ricci prefers to stay clothed and maintain the no-nudity stipulation in her contract. Perhaps Theron sets the bar too high. Whether Brittany Murphy or Kate Beckinsale, who both dropped out early on in production, would have done better as Wuornos’s lover is hard to say. Theron towers over the diminutive Ricci, and anyone else in the role may have detracted from the on-screen presence of Theron. But close-ups of Ricci’s unusual face and mystique condemns her irrevocably to her roles in The Addams Family and the like.

On the directorial side, first-time writer-director Patty Jenkins seems rushed. Filmed in only about a month in many of the actual locations where Wuornos committed her crimes, Jenkins abstains from delving into Wuornos’s cruel childhood and gives little insight into the mind of Wuornos. Jenkins is at her best when she wisely clears the stage and lets Theron do her thing.

Everyone has said this movie is disturbing. And perhaps what is most disturbing about this movie is Jenkins’s presentation of men. Focalized through the eyes of Wuornos, no single male in the entire film is fully developed as a character, and most, like Selby’s uncle, are volatile, gun-slinging louses. Jenkins cannot conceive of a woman as a serial killer, and instead attempts to justify Wuornos’s actions. This situates Monster alongside other female-victim movies of its kind — a weak rendition of the tale. Two of the last four films — Monster’s Ball and Boys Don’t Cry — that received the Oscar for best-supporting actress exemplify this ongoing trend. I do not know what the continuous fascination is in our current culture with the female-victim figure, but if these movies are any indication, Theron will take home the statue come Oscar night.

Archived article by Jason Rotstein