Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) easily fits society's definition of a monster. Outcast, abused, living on the margins, a prostitute who experiences on a daily basis men's hatred of women, Wuornos becomes a serial killer. But the trigger for her crime spree comes exactly not from anger but devotion: murdering clients and filching their money is the only way Wuornos can support her young lover, Selby (Christina Ricci).
As many viewers will know, in real life Wuornos was tried and executed, while 'Selby' is, for legal reasons, a lightly fictionalised version of her accomplice. Monster is a compelling drama which takes us into the flashpoints of this story: the birth of the relationship between the two women, and its eventual unravelling as police hone in on the pair.
One prominent American reviewer blessed Theron (and the film's publicists) with the hyperbolic assertion that hers is among "the greatest performances in the history of the cinema". That Theron has pulled off a virtuosic feat cannot be doubted. She hurls herself into the part, and shows every sign of having studied all the available footage of Wuornos (especially in Nick Broomfield's two documentaries on her) down to the last frame and the smallest physical detail – the head snapping back, the wild eyes, the discombobulated flow of her words and thoughts.
But this intense mimicry is the first sign of what makes Theron's performance so strange and fascinating. This is not 'great acting' in the traditional sense. It is what contemporary theorists of performance call, non-disparagingly, histrionics – where the labour of acting, and the codes used to create it, are completely displayed. Theron is in fact so histrionic she is almost Brechtian – her mannerisms keep upsetting the classic suspension of disbelief needed to stay involved in the fictional illusion.
Two thoughts, working in tandem, assail the viewer's mind during virtually every moment of Monster. The first thought is of Theron's massive transformation of her body for the role – already widely touted as the female equivalent to Robert De Niro's bulking up as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (1980) – which is inevitably superimposed upon how she looked at the recent Oscars night, back to her conventionally glamorous 'self'.
The second thought is that Wuornos herself, in reality as in her representation here, seems so contrived or manufactured as a person, especially where signs of gender are concerned. Her 'masculine' and 'feminine' modes of behaviour seem equally forced or unnatural – and equally grotesque. Wuornos is, in a sense, a very bad actor. A sense of her own self seems never to have existed; it is as if she began from a point of sheer alienation, and then patched together, rather imperfectly, a mix-and-match identity. This is the real monstrosity which the film puts on show, and on this level it goes further than the movie it frequently recalls, Boys Don't Cry (1999).
So the paradoxical, deconstructive loop of Monster is perfect. A violent, psychotic, trailer-trash woman with no stable self is played, masterfully, by a sophisticated, successful actress who can pick up and discard that unstable self at will. But it is henceforth strictly impossible to see the 'real' Theron on screen (or in the tabloid press) and not instantly fantasise her monstrous double, this 'cracked actor' waiting to devour her in the event of an eating crisis or a bad relationship, like Bridget Jones turned punk and angrily stalking the svelte, smiling Renee Zellweger ... The madness that Wuornos embodies, the uncontrollable flux of her identity, thus becomes the lurking hell that all of us dimly sense and sometimes only precariously avoid.
A braver, more defiantly conceptual filmmaker like Todd Haynes might have made such madness the central or even the sole subject of Monster. Writer-director Patty Jenkins, in her impressive feature debut, takes the material elsewhere; for her, the fraught, ultimately treacherous relationship between Wuornos and Selby must be regarded as a love story. Her gambit is, for the most part, successful: the film is at its most compelling when focusing on the intense exchanges – again alienated and mismatched, but nonetheless 'functioning' – of this very odd couple.
Wuornos, brutally scarred in every way by her life, desperate for any kind of affection, and especially for someone who displays a glimmer of belief in her; and Selby, young, rebellious, eager to explore her budding lesbianism. Their relationship could have easily been portrayed in terms of emotional sado-masochism, or the cagey manipulation of one by the other. (An intriguing point: either character could be cast as the manipulator.)
For Jenkins, it is a relationship based on mutual need and yearning, two very different desires that somehow manage to mesh tight – in other words, a real love story. Echoes (narrative, pictorial and musical) abound of a great film about similarly disturbed or 'vacant' nuts in love embroiled in an adventure both romantic and murderous – Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973).
Jenkins seems more comfortable with this intimate subtext than with the violence intrinsic to the real-life story. The film is structured around a string of Wuornos' encounters with clients in their cars, and this line through the story betrays a certain reductive schematism. Confronted with the average 'bad guy', Wuornos unleashes her rage; surprised by a shy, stuttering specimen, she displays her compassion. But the sign that she is going 'over the edge' comes when she can no longer tell the innocent from the guilty, or the type from the individual. Baise-moi (2000), a tougher and more radical film on this subject of women's rage, did not bother with such moral niceties.
There are other, dismaying signs occasionally that Jenkins is holding the material at arm's length and casting around for ways to make it more manageable and audience friendly. There is some heavy editorialising at work, especially in the opening 'sinister home movie' flashbacks, and the Punk 101 sentiments crammed into Wuornos' unsubtle voice-over narration. (On this score, it couldn't be more different to Badlands.)
Whatever its flaws, Monster is a gripping foray into areas too few commercial American films tackle.
© Adrian Martin March 2004