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Predator of Love

 

Monster

Patty Jenkins, USA, 2003

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: January 20, 2004

By Laurence Station

First-time director Patty Jenkins certainly doesn't play it safe with her debut feature. Telling the tale of Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute executed in Florida in October 2002 for murdering six men between 1989-90, Jenkins is forced to delicately balance presenting Wuornos as both damaged victim and cold-blooded killer. Monster is not about the victims (primarily men who picked Wuornos up for sex), whose families, obviously, will have little interest in a work that attempts to make sense of the circumstances that sent Wuornos over the edge. Thanks largely to Charlize Theron's phenomenal work in the lead role, however, Monster is absolutely compelling cinema.

Rather than take a raw, cinema verite attitude toward the material, Jenkins instead frames a love story involving Wuornos and a young innocent, polar opposite Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). After meeting in a gay bar, Wuornos (who vehemently declares she's not gay upon arriving) and Selby quickly grow attached. Selby has been sent to live with her aunt in hopes of straightening out her life (not to mention her sexual orientation), while Wuornos is barely scraping by as a highway prostitute. The only thing these two share in common is a desperate need to be loved. How true this is to what actually occurred is conjecture, but Theron and Ricci do a good job of making their characters' emotions and anxious hopes for a bright future feel genuine.

And, despite the overly structured narrative (complete with inner-thought voiceovers by Theron), Monster works because everyone but these two lovestruck women knows things are not going to work out. It's disquieting to watch the two repeatedly convince one another that they're going to escape down to South Florida, run their own business and live in a beach house. The fantasy remains forever out of reach, as Selby grows increasingly dependent on Wuornos and Wuornos feeds her desire to be needed by killing and robbing one john after another (not to mention a completely innocent Good Samaritan) in a desperate effort to keep Selby happy.

Again, there can be no sympathy for Wuornos. Despite her abusive childhood and miserable life, the actions that brought about her subsequent capital punishment are indefensible. Jenkins, who spent time with the real Wuornos before her execution, clearly has a deep compassion for her subject. As such, her objectivity is considerably more skewed than if she'd entered the project cold, without prior contact with Wuornos. Jenkins' closeness to the material may explain the "crazy in love" angle that seemingly propels Wuornos along her twisted highway to hell. Wuornos' story is indeed horrific, for all parties concerned, but it would have been nice to get a more detached view of the events surrounding her headline-making years than the version presented here.

But no matter the sympathetic slant, Charlize Theron simply shines; the actress brings a self-loathing and fascinatingly vain insight into the character that is truly amazing to behold. Wuornos' face painfully reflects the tough life she's lived, but there are moments when she gazes into a mirror and takes genuine pride in herself, as if reconnecting with a little girl who was once hopeful and eager to embrace life before everything went so terribly wrong. Ricci has considerably less to work with as the immature, clingy Selby, but she manages to be more than a mere wallflower, offering a believable mix of childlike innocent and sensual thrill seeker. Monster doesn't rise to Raging Bull heights in its dark character study, but it most certainly is a frighteningly in-your-face examination of the cycle of violence that doomed one individual and her half-dozen victims.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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