The thing I am not sure about is how Patty Davis’ film Monster is trying to view Aileen Wournos. It doesn’t quite forgive her, or expect audiences to. It does seem to at least ask us not to be quick to pass judgment on her.
I know that may sound quite noble, but I also find it dangerous. Let me put it this way – Wournos was certainly wronged in her life by numerous people, who did unspeakable things to her. They are certainly guilty. But then, Wournos also did unspeakable things to people, including those who tried to help her. And the film expects us to at least consider Wournos’ actions in a different light?
The film is a dramatization of real life serial killer Aileen Wournos (Charlize Theron). She makes a meager living as a prostitute, before she meets Selby Wall (Christina Ricci) at a bar. The two fall in love and move in, but are very short on money. Wournos continues to solicit prostitution, but encounters a very violent client who beats her. She kills him, and when she cannot find any legitimate work, she continues to murder so she can support herself and Wall.
It is impossible to describe the film without describing Charlize Theron’s performance. It is a good one, but there is an addendum to it. Theron is one of those few actors who manages to become their character. Theron plays Wournos as a wounded creature and attempts to justify her actions by saying she is some sort of angel of death, punishing the bad men (“I’m good with God” she tells Wall in one scene). At first she is confident, but then she becomes obsessed with guilt and her actions. Theron plays the character as though she has a greater weight than Atlas (the Greek titan, not the 1950s muscle man) had.
It would have worked without the incredible physical transformation. But that was there as well. I never thought that Theron could look like Wournos, but she manages (check out Wournos’ mug shot if the opportunity arises). It actually does help her performance. The idea was not to make Theron look ugly, but make her look like the sort of person who would come from her background. She is clearly damaged from the physical abuse that has been inflicted upon her. If Theron was going to play this character, I am glad that she decided to go as far as she did. Any trace of Theron disappeared in this film, replaced by Wournos. Frankly, that is how acting should work.
So Theron gave a legendary performance that helps propel the film from a Lifetime movie into something that deserves to be responded to. That in and of itself makes it a good film. But, that performance aside, is Monster a great film?
I honestly am not sure if I can classify it as such. Imagine, for the sake of argument, if a film was made about Ted Bundy which focused on his abusive family life and viewed his crimes as an afterthought. We would think that the filmmakers were mad, and were somewhat wrong in their approach.
Monster takes that approach, to the point where (no joke) Wournos curses at the judge for “sending a raped woman” to jail. Those moments are entirely gratuitous and shift the purpose of the film to the other side. Wournos almost becomes a Solanasian hero in those moments. She cannot be blamed. It is the man’s world that turned her into a monster.
They also stand in contrast with some of the better scenes. My favorite moment was the one in which Wournos kills a man who had offered to help her. She is crying, the man is crying, he still dies, Wournos realizes what she is doing and what she has become. A those moments, the murders truly do seem out of her control, and thus Wournos becomes the tragic figure that she means to be.
But in those moments where she takes a glee in doing what she does, the film grinds to a sickening halt. It may have worked if Wournos was not so dedicated in her passion (and the murder was a compulsion rather than something she wanted to do). But she talks and acts like an action hero. It makes for a very disjointed film that cannot figure out how to categorize its character.
This is an interesting case study of a film that was built up entirely by a performance. Strip away Theron, and you are left with a very confusing film that wants to turn a crazed woman into a folk hero. It needs to be seen just to see how far some actors are willing to go in the name of a part. It should also be seen to see how serial killers remain romanticized.