Directed by Patty Jenkins

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Serial killers in the movies surely outnumber serial killers in real life. But our films gaze at these characters with a unique fascination, like they hold the secret truths of the universe, like they embody our shortcomings as a people, full of sadness and rage, cast out of our midst for failing to meet the rigid requirements of our society.

American movies seem just as fascinated by the working class insularity of America’s middle and Southern states, and it’s not unusual for a film to meld the two fascinations, audience transfixed before attractive young actors who don the accents, the clothing, and the killin’/lovin’/runnin’ ways of the Southern outlaw—whether it’s Brad Pitt in Kalifornia, Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers or Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands. Despite the high-minded implication of movies about serial killers—that we need to understand the deviant among us to better understand ourselves—these stories are usually more like freak shows than social commentary. Fritz Lang’s classic M set the bar in 1931 by examining the workings of a society and the ironies of a culture that wants to rid itself of a cancer it may have created, but M is the rare exception.

To its credit, Monster, the feature-film debut of writer/director Patty Jenkins, aspires to that ideal. It’s based on the true story of Aileen Wuornos, but it’s no freak show. It truly wants us to empathize with its main character and not rush to judgment against her, and it undermines a basic assumption of the genre—that killing is a male tendency left unchecked—since the killer here is a woman, played by an unrecognizable Charlize Theron. Aileen’s violent tendencies seem more like the survival instinct of a cornered animal than an innate thirst for blood.

The film has a clever structure. It establishes a connection with the character before she becomes a killer, and even when she starts pulling the trigger, her evolution is gradual enough that the emotional ties with the audience aren’t severed immediately. She kills first in self-defense and later out of vengeance, eventually killing innocent people as substitutes for the men who’ve hurt her throughout her life. As a result, the killings are increasingly painful to watch, because at some point we have to detach ourselves from Aileen after we’ve built up a desire to see her overcome her obstacles. Her transition into a serial killer is as smooth as the one the real woman may have gone through in rationalizing her actions.

But it’s a narrow line for the film to walk. While Monster doesn’t justify Aileen’s murders, it does seem to know why she committed them. The first problem with the explanations, however, is that they’re too simple, compressed neatly into the film’s first few minutes, a breathtaking synopsis of Aileen’s formative years. And the second is that they’re selectively applied; the filmmakers show a great deal more sympathy for the killer at the story’s center than for her girlfriend’s aunt. The killer was created by abuse and circumstance, but the aunt apparently sprang from the womb as a repressed racist.

The film also makes minor villains out of the people who eventually lead to Aileen’s capture. It concludes with a damning telephone call, replayed for a jury, and Jenkins presents the call in an elegant montage that revolves around Theron’s pained face. But as emotional as the scene is, it upsets the balance by leaning so hard on Aileen’s girlfriend Selby, played by Christina Ricci, for helping the police. Selby, it seems, should have been more like Aileen’s saintly friend Tom who tries to help her evade capture, but it’s a strange form of saintliness that allows a killer to keep killing out of sheer pity.

Much will be made of Theron’s performance. Her beauty is masked completely, not only by makeup but by raw physical presence—a gait, a stance—that looks like the product of a hard life on the streets. As impressive as this transformation is, it’s likely to spawn more discussions about acting than about the topic at hand. With breathless desperation, Theron looks like a woman fighting for air as she spirals downward, but the movie would be stronger if the other characters didn’t fall so clearly into two camps—either for or against her. Selby’s character is ambiguous and underdeveloped, but by the end we know just which camp she belongs to, which reveals the film is, ultimately, less interested in studying its protagonist than winning support for her by showing her persecution. | robert davis