Monster is a real-life horror movie — of the small but prestigious serious-true-crime-film genre — that deserves to stand alongside Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and In Cold Blood. This particular story has inspired books, a TV movie (Overkill, starring Jean Smart), two documentaries by Nick Broomfield, and even an opera. What is there left to say about Aileen Wuornos, who confessed in 1991 to the highway murders of seven men? A prostitute with a terribly harsh backstory, Wuornos lashed out at the world, at anything that threatened her one chance at love — her relationship with lover Tyria Moore, who ended up betraying her to the police by taping a phone call in which Wuornos talked about her crimes.
Writer/director Patty Jenkins focuses on this doomed love in a loveless life. Aileen (Charlize Theron), when we meet her as an adult, has been hooking since she was thirteen. Men disgust her, because she sees the worst of them at their worst. She denies she’s a lesbian, but when she meets the tiny, girlish Selby (a fictionalized Tyria, well-played by Christina Ricci in a change-of-pace optimistic role), something in her is moved. Selby, a baby dyke just tiptoeing out of the closet, has a cast on her arm — she’s like a little bird with a broken wing, and Aileen takes her in. She wants to take care of Selby, enacting a husband role — Selby will stay home (she can’t work with her arm in a cast) while Aileen goes out and makes money by turning tricks. When one of her johns (Lee Tergesen of Oz, letting his freak flag fly) goes psycho on her, she kills him in self-defense. The other six men she kills do little to earn it except picking her up and having money — and she needs money to keep Selby fed.
The real triumph of Charlize Theron’s performance, aside from the cosmetic transformation you’ve heard too much about, is that she lets us understand Aileen’s murderous determination while never romanticizing it or excusing it. This is, undoubtedly, a severely damaged personality at the end of her rope, and Theron makes Aileen realistically frightening and unreachable at times. Murder in her hands is certainly not cool. Two of her encounters with men — Pruitt Taylor Vince as a hapless, stammering trucker and Scott Wilson as a good samaritan — come to surprising and resonant ends, and Theron’s face registers Aileen’s disgust with her company, her world, herself.
This could be the simple story of an abused woman who finally snapped; her beating and torture at the hands of her first victim may shock the unshockable, particularly the sadistic use of rubbing alcohol after Aileen has been violated with a stick. Yet Jenkins’ handling of the murder that follows doesn’t have a remotely victorious tone. Aileen is one of the lost, one of the people for whom nothing will ever go right (there’s a mid-film montage of Aileen pathetically applying for various jobs), and her killings don’t have the ring of empowerment but the predetermined knell of a descent further into hell. She goes home to her lover after one murder, pausing to wash off the blood in the hotel shower. Past a certain point, if Selby doesn’t know where all of Aileen’s money is coming from, it’s probably because she doesn’t want to know.
Theron also catches the nervous, creepy aliveness of Aileen, something I noticed while watching the actual person in Broomfield’s 1992 documentary Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Aileen, who was executed in October 2002, was no dimwit; she was terribly emotionally stunted, as Monster acknowledges on several occasions, including Aileen’s infamous courtroom tirade (having seen the real Aileen delivering the obscenities in Broomfield’s film, I can attest that Theron duplicates the moment precisely). Aileen’s answer to just about everything was a closed fist. Though Aileen later repudiated her own earlier claims that all of her murders had been in self-defense, Monster looks deeper and sees a life lived in self-defense.