By Lark Aldrin-Clement
With title credits of “Based on a True Story”, director Patty Jenkins writes a condensed interpretation of the life of serial killer Aileen Wuornos. After suffering as a victim of child abuse and teen pregnancy, Wuornos led a life of prostitution and armed robbery. After being savagely beaten and raped by one of her “clients”, she killed him in self-defense, but she then went on a killing spree and murdered six other men. Convinced that they were a threat to her, Wuornos justified the murders in her mind and continued to live a life as she financially supported her lesbian girlfriend, Tyria Moore.
Four months after the real Wuornos was executed by lethal injection in 2002, the film “Monster” hit screens in 2003. Starting as a little girl with dreams of becoming the next Marilyn Monroe and ending as a delusional weathered woman, this film takes us on a gritty ride of psychological despair.
Winning the Oscar for best actress, screen beauty Charlize Theron transformed herself into Aileen “Lee” with perfection. Search for any YouTube clips of the real Aileen, and you will see that Theron’s thirty pound weight gain and facial prosthetics made her a doppelganger. With nervous ticks and incessant profanity, Theron embodies the real life persona with amazing artistic ability.
Not for the faint of heart, Theron’s most difficult scene with her “John” gone awry has her in the most vulnerable of positions. Actor Lee Tergesen, known for TV roles in “Law & Order” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”, portrays the man who’s horrible assault on Lee allegedly inspired her subsequent killings. Reminiscent of the rape scene in “Boys Don’t Cry”, the artful direction makes it barely tolerable to watch.
Co-starring as her love interest, Christina Ricci (you remember her as Wednesday in “The Addams Family” movies), is all grown up as neurotic Selby Wall. Although names have been changed, Selby’s character is clearly the real life Tyria Moore. Ricci impresses audiences as a woman who although is very insecure, had a very manipulative and profound effect on Lee. With excessive pleading to be taken care of, Selby’s pressure compacted with physical trauma pushed Aileen Wuornos to the edge.
Ricci and Theron light up the screen with an unusual chemistry. From the first moment they meet, Lee and Selby have ethereal quality to their relationship. As Ricci’s character wields a broken arm in a cast, symbolic of a broken wing, Aileen becomes protective and falls for her, even though she says “I’m not a lesbian”. Twenty minutes into the film, heavy kissing ensues and a love story unfolds in the midst of horror such as rape, murder, and mayhem.
Just an hour’s drive from Daytona Beach, where Lee resided, “Monster” was shot against the freeways and small town streets of Casselberry, Florida. With a great soundtrack, Steve Perry of the group Journey was credited as a music consultant and his song “Don’t Stop Believing” is used for a pivotal scene when Aileen and Shelby skate hand in hand and kiss publicly at a roller rink.
Balancing the revulsion of Lee’s lack of conscience with the sensitive love scenes, “Monster” is a film that feels more like a biopic than a narrative that exhibits sympathy towards Wuornos. Director Jenkins was fortunate to receive letters from the real life killer who wanted to shed some light on her own state of mind. The movie plays out like a docudrama in some scenes, even if the story is compressed and gives an inaccurate timeline.
It appears that everything transpires in about six to eight months, when in fact, Aileen and Tyria had a relationship that lasted four years. Although Wuornos killed seven men, only four killings are show on screen. Jenkins could have expanded her screenplay for a more involved timeline.
“Monster” is a little on the skimpy side when it comes to content and grazes over important personal history with an unsatisfying superficiality. The abuse that Lee suffered as a little girl was abbreviated, the fact that she was married to a much older man is never mentioned, and her life of armed robbery is never touched upon. Nonetheless, Theron’s performance is so riveting that the accelerated time span is overlooked.
As Theron’s narration tells Lee’s tragic story, we are caught between insanity and pondering whether trauma made her do it. For a more in depth look at her story, the documentaries “Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer” (1992) and “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer” (2003), made by British filmmaker Nicholas Broomfield is an amazing supplement to “Monster”.
Aileen Wuornos sat on death row for twelve years, which also not captured in this movie. Theron’s character walks off after the trial and looks back at the camera claiming injustice. With a fantastic performance by her, “Monster” focuses on the tenderness of one woman and the collapse of her psyche. Although this movie does not take a stance on whether Lee was justified, but merely reports the events, it is still a nice showcase of cinematic talent.
Aileen Wuornos – Charlize Theron
Selby Wall – Christina Ricci
Thomas – Bruce Dern
Horton – Scott Wilson
Gene – Pruitt Taylor Vince
Vincent Corey – Lee Tergesen
Donna – Annie Corley
Distributed by Newmarket Films (USA)
Director: Patty Jenkins
Screenplay: Patty Jenkins
Producers: Brad Wyman, Donald Kushner, Charlize Theron, Mark Damon and Sammy Lee
Executive Producers: Clark Peterson, Meagan Riley-Grant, Stewart Hall, Andreas Grosch and Andreas Schmid
Director of Photography: Steven Bernstein
Production Designer: Edward T. McAvoy
Editor: Jane Kurson and Arthur Coburn
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 109 Minutes