Roger Ebert calls Monster “the best film of the year” and he says Charlize Theron gives “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.” While Theron’s performance really is good, the movie isn’t best-of-the-year material.
Love at the Bottom of a Glass
R for violence, sex, language
Monster is a biopic about Aileen “Lee” Wuornos, the only female serial killer convicted in the U.S. A prostitute, she killed her seven victims (all johns) in Florida. She was executed in 2002.
Monster is an empathize-with-the-serial-killer movie, like Dahmer or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It opens on a down-and-out Lee (Theron) who is ready to commit suicide, but first she has to spend her last five bucks. She earned them from a john, so she reasons that if she kills herself, he basically got her services for free, and she doesn’t want to go out like that.
She wanders into a bar and is approached by Selby (Christina Ricci), whose guardians are unsuccessfully trying to protect her from lesbianism. Lee realizes she’s in a gay bar and quickly tells Selby she’s straight. But having set the ground rules, the two become friends, and before the night is over, Selby has fallen in love with Lee. And Lee, who has never had anyone adore her before, decides maybe she’s willing to fall in love too, even if Selby is a girl.
Their relationship wants to bloom, but with Selby trapped in her homophobic home, it’s impossible for them to meet. Lee, inspired by her first true love, decides she’ll earn enough money so they can run away together and start a new life. But the last john of the day turns violent, and in self-defense, she kills him. She takes his car and his money and returns to Selby.
Later on, she explains the movie’s title. It’s the name of a ferris wheel, and for her, it meant an exciting sense of anticipation until she actually got on the ride, when her excitement turned to nauseated fright. She’s always thought that was strange that something as innocuous as a ferris wheel was so scary, while the horrors of living as a prostitute never fazed her. Apparently, killing her johns inspires these mixed feelings.
Theron’s performance really is amazing, and it is helped by the makeup, hair, and costumes. Call her blue-collar or Florida redneck, Aileen is one of the most American-looking characters you’ll see in a movie. Most of us aren’t supermodels, and most of us don’t look like Charlize Theron usually does.
Lee’s face is freckled from the Florida sun. Her upper lip rides over her buck teeth. Her long dishwater blond hair gets feathered back when she wants to impress. She dresses like a hooker, aptly. Theron even put on 30 pounds for the role.
Underneath the exterior, Theron gives her character a nervous strut, acting cool but used to the world telling her she isn’t. She’s the kind of woman to say “fuck ‘em, they don’t know me,” even though the insult strikes her heart.
What makes the movie really affecting, though, is not just Theron’s performance but the love story between Aileen and Selby. Lee has never been loved and understood before. Years of sex as a prostitute had convinced her she would probably never find love, or that it didn’t exist. To have someone fall for her is like a second chance at life.
Killing johns for their money is a bad decision, but we can see how it made sense to Aileen. Unfortunately, the movie goes out of its way to excuse her. It shows the world refusing to accept her into decent society; on the same day she gets laughed out of a job interview, a cop picks her up for a freebie. Still, even without the excuses, we can empathize with Lee. Killing johns not only supplies the fuel for her new life, but it’s a way of lashing out at her old life.
On the other hand, Monster also sympathizes with Lee’s victims. One john is so naive she can’t bring herself to kill him. She lectures another victim on prostitution before she kills him, only to discover in his wallet a picture that is worth a thousand words. (This john, by the way, is played by Scott Wilson, who starred in an earlier empathize-with-the-killer movie, In Cold Blood.)
Eventually, Lee’s position becomes untenable. Selby “discovers” what has been going on, although they argue whether Selby really knew, deep down. Lee earnestly tries to explains why what she does is necessary, even just. But no matter how convincing her eyes and demeanor are, her explanation makes no sense.
Eventually, Lee and Selby part ways for good. Their last phone call is a beautiful scene of devastating sadness. By now we sympathize — not just empathize — with Lee, and a lethal injection almost seems welcome.
Ebert’s praise is hyperbolic, but he’s on the right track. Monster is good, and Theron’s performance is very good.