To go into Monster with assumptions and expectations of the following 1 hour and 44 minutes is a pointless feat; no matter what you know about the story, of Aileen Wuornos, or of the killing spree that led her to notorious fame as a serial killer when she was finally arrested in 1991, nothing will prepare you for the emotional and heart-wrenching ride that combines tender moments with equally as rough reality.
Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman)doesn’t make grand efforts to portray anybody in a truly negative or positive light. Despite the main character’s criminal behaviour and undeniably tough upbringing that was granted no salvation as she grew older, the heart of the narrative is captured within the human desire for normalcy and acceptance. Monster opens with Charlize Theron’s voiceover as the adult Wuornos; she regales to the audience her stunted childhood, always the outcast from friends and family that eventually led her to a solitary life of prostitution to get by. Her chance meeting with the young Selby (Christina Ricci) in a bar one evening opens up an entirely new world that Aileen was never welcomed into. The point of their relationship isn’t the gender involved nor the stakes they risk in being together; instead it’s about Aileen being accepted as someone who is allowed to be appreciated as a human being.
Selby’s own struggles with her sexuality in a strict religious household push her into running away with the eccentric Aileen, and in each other they find something they weren’t receiving from their own families. Jenkins really highlights the companionship they create despite the violence Aileen resorts to for money, without downplaying the reality of the murders she commits. Whilst Theron’s character choosesto commit these murders to support her lover, there is no Hollywood glamour, nor ‘who cares about these sleazy men’ theme, nor even a drastic rape-revenge plot still found glorified on the big screen today. It is simply a story of getting by, doing what must be done when the cards were never dealt fairly, highlighted by dialogue such as:
‘lots of people have bad lives and they still choose to move towards the light, otherwise we’d all be hookers and druggies ‘cos somebody yelled at us or we had a mean mom,’
from the ignorant homophobe Donna (Annie Corley). There’s a subtle illustration of the difference between classes and convention, of cookie-cutter heterosexuality against any diversion of the ‘norm’ that never leans into the explicit or the explanatory. This keeps the film absorbable yet still intricately emotional. There’s tenderness but no romance, there’s violence but no real retribution, there’s humanity but no equitability. The film doesn’t necessarily leave you raging against the machine, feeling so strongly against a justice system or of the inevitable life choices some people are forced to make. Jenkins chose a straightforward path for her actors to thrive upon without theatrics or provoking monologues. The audience connects with the main character through our anxiety for her wellbeing whilst simultaneously staying cautious of her temperament.
Theron captures a deep sorrow in her portrayal, as well as a kind of sweetness often unfound in these types of characters. The physical transformation is, of course, superb and realistic, but what encapsulates the essence of this unendingly troubled person is the absolute cocoon that Theron becomes. She fully becomes someone else in her nuanced movements, so carefully thought-out that they transcend acting and she becomes a completely real person, totally separate from her previous self. Her metamorphosis was well-deserving of her 2004 Oscar for best actress in a leading role.
Ricci’s own character Selby, of whom was almost entirely made-up to be Wuornos’ counterpart on-screen due to Aileen’s real girlfriend wanting privacy, was believable in her naïve attitude but desire to live as her true self, and this gentleness and longing she portrays compliments Theron’s own. Ricci and Theron are a great acting duo, and their acting capabilities are completely validated in this film.
The actors are not the only great part of Monster, as the cinematography elevates the characters even further. Some of the shots are so beautiful but in an almost sad way, using muted and dusky blues and rural landscapes to reflect a beaten down Aileen. Dull orange tones twin the blues, creating an atmosphere for Aileen to flip between exciting romance and the fight for survival.
Monster is a great example of the crime genre told through an artistic lens without losing any real organic emotion, which I find often happens with glorified horror stories and violent drama that becomes so Hollywoodised for the screen. Jenkins has made a film that feels both soft and rough, perfectly documenting an inner and outer struggle of the human desire to be accepted into general society and to fend for the self; two things that usually don’t go hand in hand.