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MONSTER (2003 - R)
Based on the life of the late female serial killer Aileen Wuornos, the film chronicles the controversial romance and life livings of the Daytona Beach prostitute and her partner, the young and naïve Selby, up to Aileen's prosecution.
Written and directed by: Patty Jenkins.
Genre: Crime-Drama, Biography.
This dramatic film takes a very risky perspective through which to expose the life and trials of notorious female serial killer Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron). Beginning with a short but dark montage, the film quickly contextualizes Aileen’s childhood: unstable, destitute, abusive, isolated, and oppressive. A child stricken with the circumstances of living with an unstable, low-income family in which both parents contributed to successive verbal and physical abuse, Aileen strove to make herself “pretty” to gain attention. Thus began a difficult journey of constantly seeking approval and gratification through male attention.
This tactic would eventually have her sleeping with random high school boys, and doing other questionable acts in exchange for the possibility of hearing, “I like you.” Instead, they laughed. And her brothers and sisters exiled her from her home. Homeless as a teenager, Aileen fled to the streets where she began to work as a truck driver and part-time prostitute.
The film doesn’t make any explicit commentary on the motives behind Aileen’s prostitution, though it does allow the implication that Aileen’s troubled pass and gentle heart simply saw prostitution as an opportunity for potential affection and additional income. However, it doesn’t take long before the film begins to expose the dark side of prostitution: the echoes of laughter, and the smirks, sneers, verbal insults, and physical abuse that resonate with the child inside Aileen. Inside men’s cars Aileen was a victim of her own foolish heart, and the men’s misogynistic, heartless motives. Slowly, Aileen was being driven into desperation, and a dark hole.
But at the potential nadir of her life in walks a fresh young girl by the name of Selby (Christina Ricci). Presumably still in high school, Selby is a product of an ultra-conservative Christian home which censors Shelby from the “truths” of the world via excessively overprotective rules and rituals. All the while conforming to their demands, Selby is secretly exploring her true self, a gay self, and seeking approval, in much the same way as Aileen, and love.
Though Aileen had never had a female lover previous to Selby, and though her first meeting with Selby has her explicitly confessing she was straight and not looking to get involved with a woman, much less a girl, still, it isn’t long before Aileen is drawn to Selby’s innocent, loving, non-judgmental nature. To Selby the world is one big ball of innocent love. To Aileen, Selby’s an angel. Selby thinks the same of Aileen.
But what seem the beginnings of a promising relationship is quickly marred when, in an attempt to finance a room for the two lovers’ first meeting, Aileen decides to “hook” (code name for prostituting) for some extra bucks. But when the man begins to physically rape and beat her (which includes some very graphic images and violent abuse) she finally snaps and kills the man in self defense. Still, Aileen is a prostitute; she has no money; no job…who would believe a woman like her? She knows she would go to jail, and in fear she flees, taking Selby with her.
After a brief altercation with her family, Selby and Aileen run off to live together in a motel. Presumably Aileen has now quit her trucker job. With money running low, Aileen decides to straighten up and go clean. She attempts to become a decent blue-collared citizen. But again, humiliation, destitution, and verbal abuse ensue. During her many attempts to find a decent job Aileen is subject to the verbal assaults and humiliating rejection of countless employers: she has no skills, no previous experience, let alone the obvious fact that she isn’t hygienically up to snuff. Distraught, Aileen once again regrettably resorts to her former ways, hooking.
Only this time Aileen hooks with a vengeance. On her first attempt to re-enter the world of prostitution she once again has another altercation with a man, and this time, Aileen is out for payback. So she kills. And she continues to kill the men she picks up off the street, taking their cars and wallets as blood money proceeds. This pattern continues until Selby begins to realize that perhaps things aren’t quite legitimate. Confined to the house, Selby begins to feel suffocated by Aileen, who clearly plays the role of the man in the relationship. A dénouement turns the momentum of the story after Selby crashes one of Aileen’s victim’s cars. Confessions are made, as well as fugitives.
Together the two run from the authorities for as long as possible. Selby hides helplessly in the dark corners of a hotel while Aileen begins to have second thoughts about her motives when encountering less ruthless suspects to kill. Still, eventually all good things must come to an end, and slowly Selby will flee the situation in an attempt to free herself of any connection to Aileen’s crimes. As the world sits and waits for this infamous “female serial killer” to be discovered, her own lover will ultimately be the one to deliver the suspect.
“Monster” is as heartbreaking as it is revelatory. The narrative attempts to be as objective as possible, which at times means challenging the viewer to look sympathetically at the situation. The film calls audiences to their responsibility to look at the “whole” picture, and not just that of the tabloid penned Wuornos, the “prostitute serial killer.” The narrative is wide-lensed, exposing the many nuances of pain, joy, trial, and small tribulations, however scarce, throughout the complicated and weathered life of Aileen. She is much more than a murder, she is a human being, and a broken one at that. Of course the narrative does not attempt to make excuses for her murderous rampage. Scenes exposing Aileen veering on cold-blooded murder, or particularly the scene where she murders the humble old man are perfect examples of the narrative questioning the sanity, and motives behind Aileen’s mental welfare.
There is no question that Aileen was driven to despair, and sometimes insanity, by the pain and circumstance of her hard life. There does remain the question, however, whether or not more than just Aileen was responsible for her outcome. The film calls into question society’s role, and general questions of humanity: whether or not we have a duty to treat human beings equally with love and respect, both the public and Aileen herself. Unquestionably, both Aileen and the public violate those general duties: both Aileen and society allowed hate to overcome. This film is a nod to the darker side of humanity, a scathing reflection of what happens when a beaten human being is kept down for too long. They will want air, they will want to breathe, and they will kill for it. Ultimately, they will die trying.
Patty Jenkins was as ruthlessly objective, painfully focused, and as honest as possible with the retelling of this tale. In her rendition of Aileen’s life, she is both a self-made and environmentally begot “monster”; murderer and lover. She is as gentle as she is deadly, as complex as she is simple. Jenkins dives with gusto within and inside the layers of Aileen to expose a more rounded, objective viewpoint through which to argue for the human still left inside the killer’s body. Selby is one of the main instruments through which that humanity is exposed. And yet, so too is there an ambiguity around the relationship: that it was homosexual, that it was between a woman and a near “child” (Selby’s age is never released). The relationship is as endearing as it questionable, much like Aileen herself. You at once pity and admonish her. You’re horrified and heartbroken. Jenkins is a tactful genius.
The acting in the film is deft. Charlize throws herself headfirst into her role: gaining 30 pounds, abandoning all aspects of “beauty,” and transforming herself into the aura of Aileen. She deserved the Oscar (Best Actress) she was awarded. Christina Ricci is perfectly cast as the helpless Selby, as culpable as she is innocent in her unwillingness to seize autonomy and change hers and Aileen’s lives. She is the epitome of a child dumbstruck by the onslaught of fear: of rejection, of hate, of the world. Then there’s Bruce Dern who plays Tom, Aileen’s only friend, and male at that. He is the only glimmer of hope within the film, and yet the glimmer is dull, it is dirty; it is seedy and diffused with the tinge of old age and tired bones. Yet it is a glimmer. And it is much needed among the dark, suffocating aura of the film. Still, the morose narrative is necessary… it is the least we can do for this late woman; finally hear her side of the story.
The film wasn’t an attempt to justify her crimes, but to cast a new light. Jenkins attempted to reinstate the “humanness” in a woman stripped off all dignity before our patriarchal society that refused to listen to a downtrodden, homeless, vagrant, murderous prostitute. I hope, as I know Jenkins does, in the end people can still see that above all, Aileen was a broken human being, and that at some point, we as a society are in the least, partly responsible. And there are more Aileen’s out there, male and female. What will we do about it?
Of Jenkins one can only remark this: courageous. She was undoubtedly ballsy with this project. It was honest, and the script was as gut wrenching and poignant as it was despairing. The film doesn’t take away the evilness of the crimes, but it does allow you, in a complex way, to still sympathize. It was a massive feat, and one which was done extraordinarily well.
The lighting, the cinematography, the stage sets, the costumes, all were above par. In the very darkened lenses of Jenkin’s camera is the reflection of the seedy life that is the reality of the downtrodden “Others” of American society. In that darkened lens one sees how people become trapped; and fight like hell to get out.
“Monster” won the 2004 Oscar for Best Leading Actress: Charlize Theron. Additionally the film garnered another 16 wins and 12 nominations. Some of its awards include the Berlin International Film Festival’s Silver Berlin Bear for Best Actress (Theron), the Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress (Theron), the Casting Society of America’s Artios Award for Best Cast in Independent Film (Ferne Cassel, Kimberly Mullen) and the Golden Globe for Best Actress (Theron).
*This film may not be suitable for children.
Aileen: “All you need is love, and to believe in yourself.”