Monster (18)

Dying is an art. And she does it very well
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The Independent Culture

Monster is a film laden with ironies, from its title on. Ostensibly the monster is American multiple killer Aileen Wuornos, executed in 2002 after 12 years on Death Row. Halfway through Patty Jenkins's film, however, we learn that the Monster was the name of a Ferris wheel that dazzled the young Wuornos, but made her throw up. A Ferris wheel is a huge, ungainly mechanism that promises glamour and thrills, but delivers a monotonous grind in endless circles - a perfect image for the wretched life of which Aileen Wuornos once expected so much. Therein lies something of the grace of Jenkins's film: we expect sensation, but what we get is something more measured, more attuned to the crunching banality of life on America's poverty line.

Not all the film's ironies are so felicitous. At the start, Aileen recalls in voice-over how, as a child, she wanted to be in the movies. And that's how she ended up, both in this fictionalised feature and in two documentaries by Nick Broomfield, including last year's Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. In Monster, young Aileen dreams of being beautiful and rich; cruelly, this impoverished, ordinary-looking prostitute ended up being played by a Hollywood beauty. Much of the discussion around Monster has addressed the rights and wrongs of Charlize Theron - who won Best Actress Oscar for the part - "uglying up" to play Wuornos. Well, it's not Theron's fault that she doesn't look as rough as Wuornos, and her honest, unshowy performance is no worse for involving a sort of Raging Bull transformation, with Theron's skin mottled to suggest the ravages of years of rough living.

All that really matters is that Theron is convincing: in fact, the buried traces of her own looks, just visible in the occasional candid gaze, helps you understand how Selby Wall, Wuornos's female lover, could be so bowled over by the beauty that this wonderstruck admirer keeps referring to. Given that her character is constantly in the high register of a self-dramatiser and neurotic, Theron's performance is surprisingly subtle. She cultivates certain signature moves, such as a clunky, sometimes clownish swagger, or a petulant flick of her lank hair, drawing not just on footage of Wuornos but also on certain cultural mannerisms from the biker world with which Wuornos identified.

The film gets into its stride with a single strong image: a silhouetted Wuornos crouched on the concrete edge of a freeway as cars zip by, doomed to be an eternal outsider. Mercifully perhaps, we don't get too much of Wuornos's horrifically abused early life, except as snatches of back story: Monster begins shortly before Wuornos's brief but concentrated spate of killings, and is just as much about her relationship with inexperienced young lesbian Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). The film is very much the story of an ill-fated romance, a folie à deux in which Wall colludes in Wuornos's guilt. Ricci's Wall is a needy childlike ingénue, bowled over by the seeming self-possession of Wuornos, a grizzled, short-fused citizen of the road. When they first get together, Wuornos has never considered sleeping with a woman, and is somewhat baffled to find herself in bed with Wall, albeit chastely tucked up beneath a crucifix.

Jenkins's script suggests that it's largely society's fault if Wuornos could not get off her murderous Ferris wheel once it was in motion. Largely out of love for Wall, she decides to give up hooking and get a job. But she over-reaches, trying to step straight onto the professional ladder. With a tinge of ghastly comedy, Wuornos is made to look both deluded and victimised, dressing up in her misguided, shapeless idea of working clothes. The people who interview her for work are horrifically rude and sneering, and then a cop coerces her into sex. The implication is that society deserves what it gets, that Wuornos is a kind of avenger of subsistence-level American women, an Erin Brockovich with firepower.

Her first murder - marking the point where this lifelong victim is driven over the edge - is performed as self-defence, in reaction to a violent rape. Thereafter the images of Wuornos begin to be a little expressionistic: hovering in the dark wreathed in a cigarette smoke, or by the roadside, standing four-square with ominous intent. The film goes out of its way to suggest Wuornos's compassion for fellow underdogs: meeting a client who turns out benignly awkward, she reluctantly lets him go. Before long, however, it's suggested that killing has become an uncontrollable reflex: one man who picks her up is well-meaning, simply offering a ride. But now there's no turning back - it's as if she's reprogrammed herself too thoroughly as a killer.

Wuornos's domestic life, meanwhile, is as mundane as it gets: the weak, selfish Wall falls for a protector who proves to be even more damaged than her. The most acute, tender insight into the duo's relationship comes in a scene where Wall scampers off to join new lesbian friends at a fairground, and Wuornos can only sulk jealously at a distance like the shy tough kid at the playground.

For all the bluster, Theron manages to maintain a core of Wuornos's unknowability. It's a shame, though, that her performance isn't quite matched by Christina Ricci, who plays Wall as a one-note gamine: we've become so used to seeing Ricci as a rough-edged, knowing exotic that playing it bland almost looks like a radical departure. But she never quite gets beyond Wall's dependency, or gives much shading to the moral vacancy that becomes clear at the end.

Monster certainly scores highly for exploring American poverty-level culture without giving it that exotic trailer-trash glamour we see so often in US independents: the geography of motels, biker bars, roller rinks, is shot with commendable matter-of-factness. At its best, the film has a concise visual logic that speaks for itself, subtly and with due regard for those things we can't hope to know. After one murder, we get the briefest glimpse of Wuornos inspecting her bloodstained body in the mirror, and we can't quite interpret her curled lip. Defiant pride, revulsion at the blood, at the person it's come from - or her own aggrieved self-appraisal?

The film rings truest when least rhetorical. Although Jenkins successfully sets Monster at a realistic low pitch, her musical punctuation sometimes throws the film off balance: the overbearing crescendo of drumming that underlines the inexorable build-up to a murder, or the moment at a roller rink where the lovers skate to a piece of Eighties rock that redundantly tells us we're looking at "a small town girl/ Living in a lonely world."

The one truly damaging decision is the use of a voice-over, as if the film needed insurance, lest we misunderstand its heroine and her motivations. Wuornos's voice-over leads us out of the film with some hard-earned wisdom: she wryly unreels a string of benign banalities ("Love conquers all. Every cloud has a silver lining"), then concludes, "They got to tell you something." Here Monster lays its ironies too much on the line, cheapening its insights, finally giving this otherwise tough, serious film the tone of a trashy ghostwritten autobiography.