Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 26, 2021)
It seems like the Oscars love to reward attractive people for their work as ugly folks. We find this notion borne out by Charlize Theron’s victory for 2003’s Monster.
With makeup that gives her the look of a female Jon Voight, Theron nabbed the Best Actress prize as serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The flick starts with a montage that hints at Aileen’s rough early life and brings us to the point where she almost attempts to kill herself.
For bizarre reasons we soon learn, she instead stops into a local gay bar, where she meets Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). Selby meekly attempts to befriend Aileen, and the pair begin what eventually turns into a romantic relationship.
Aileen’s main source of support comes from prostitution, as she turns tricks with passing motorists. One of these goes wrong as Vincent Corey (Lee Tergesen) ties her up and beats her. In a fit of rage, Aileen shoots and kills the man, and she then attempts to cover up the murder.
This succeeds, though she does eventually tell Selby what occurred. Selby’s supposed to return to her family in the mid-west, but Aileen convinces her to stay, and she tries to go straight. However, Aileen encounters only rejection as she pursues a job, mostly because she has no work skills or experience.
With nothing else to do, Aileen returns to prostitution, but she snaps again while with her first trick and kills him. From there, the movie follows her pattern of murder as she becomes a true serial killer via men she picks up as they seek cheap thrills.
Whereas one might expect Monster to present a psychological investigation into the mind of a serial killer, that really doesn’t occur. Sure, the movie tosses out some rationalizations for Aileen’s behavior, as we learn tidbits from her hard life of abuse. Nonetheless, it doesn’t get into these elements in depth.
Instead, the movie mainly exists as a perverse romance. Occasionally I thought they should have titled it Lee ‘n’ Selby: A Love Story, as the movie largely focused on their relationship.
Aileen’s first killing doesn’t occur until well into the second act, and the film never much concentrates or seems interested in those actions.
This feels like both a positive and a negative. On the plus side, it makes Monster unusual and unexpected.
It doesn’t take the traditional path, and it gives us much more character development than usual for this sort of piece. We definitely feel like we know Aileen before she goes off the deep end.
However, some of the film’s sympathies seem unwarranted. At times it feels like Monster attempts to excuse Aileen’s killings, especially during the earlier ones.
For the most part, she only slays mean, abusive men who “deserve” it, and we even see her show compassion toward one tubby sad-sack with a speech impediment. Not only does she spare his life, but also she gives him a quick hand job!
This changes somewhat as the movie progresses, and she eventually murders a man who possesses none of the seediness of the others. Even in that case, though, we get the impression that society put her in that spot.
I won’t spell out the details, but the movie appears to convey that Aileen was forced to shoot the man due to her predicament, and if the world had treated her better, she wouldn’t have started down this murderous path in the first place.
Clearly Aileen suffered from a rough life, but one can extend only so much sympathy toward a woman who brutally murdered people. Whether or not any of these guys “deserved” it seems irrelevant, and Aileen’s claims of self-defense during her trial appear absurd, with the possible exception of the first killing.
Monster doesn’t slam us hard with its attempts to make us feel for Aileen, and I appreciate some of those elements. It beats turning her into nothing more than a one-dimensional movie villain. Nonetheless, I think it goes too far in this regard, as it extends too much sympathy toward her and not enough toward her victims.
As noted earlier, Theron took home an Oscar for Monster, and I can’t quibble with that decision. She definitely loses herself in the part, and not just physically.
Yeah, the extra weight she gained and all the cosmetic blemishes turn the beautiful Charlize into the moderately skanky Aileen, but the actress goes farther than that. She makes Aileen seem nuts but not over the top, and she balances those elements well in a genuinely three-dimensional performance.
More of a warped love story than a psychological examination of a serial killer, Monster mostly works. I wasn’t wild about the parts that extended a little too much sympathy for the murdered, but I appreciated the attempts at balance and depth. The film somewhat meanders during the third act, but it comes to a strong conclusion and remains a fairly compelling piece.