Reviewed by: Kenneth R. Morefield, Ph.D.
Starring: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen, Bubba Baker | Directed by: Patty Jenkins | Produced by: Charlize Theron, Matt Damon, Clark Peterson, Brad Wyman, Mark Damon, Donald Kushner, Sammy Lee | Distributor: Newmarket Films
Charlize Theron plays real life serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The film chronicles Wuornos’s life between the time she forms an attachment to a young lesbian woman named Selby (Christina Ricci) through the time she is arrested of suspicion of multiple murders. We get one scene from the trial as well. Rated R for sexual situations, pervasive language, brief nudity, and extreme violence including rape and murder.
“Monster” is a serious work of art that owes more of its pedigree to “In Cold Blood” and “Dead Man Walking” than to more commercial entertainments such as “Silence of the Lambs” or “Copycat”. It is not just a serial killer movie that happens to be based on real-life. It is a real-life movie that is about a serial killer. The view of life it presents is bleak and despairing, and I doubt that many Christians who are not at least somewhat desensitized to portrayals of violence will be able to watch it productively. The film does not glamorize or eroticize its content, so I imagine those who choose not to see it should do so on the basis of its content alone and not its presentation.
I found its presentation to be good enough to make the movie superior, but not quite excellent. What “Monster” ultimately lacks is a point of view, and it is hard for art to be great without one. Don’t misunderstand me; I was not looking for oversimplifications and simple answers. I recognize that life is often ambiguous, and I do believe that art can be great without taking sides.
“In Cold Blood” (both the book and the film) ushered in a new sort of crime genre—one which neither sought to excuse or condemn. Like its predecessors, the protest novel and literary naturalism, this sort of fact-based report tries to avoid premanufacturing the explanation in the knowledge that such ready made points of view often shield us from truly looking at what happened. Richard Wright said of his fictional protest novel, “Native Son”, that he wanted it to be “hard” so that the audience would not have the “consolation of tears.”
“Monster” follows this model very well. Despite its title, it does not really explain Wuornos as a monster—or rather this is not its sole explanation. The first killing she commits is clearly in self-defense. We get hints of her abuse in childhood, and we see how Selby is not above manipulating her, even into a return to prostitution, in order to further her own desires. We see how Wuornos gets a cold shoulder from social services and in a broader sense from Christians. Yet we are not asked to feel sympathy for her, indeed we are almost forced to give sympathetic feelings no quarter. Like “Dead Man Walking”, this film has a calculated neutrality that is ultimately more about politics than art.
The cop who demands oral sex from her free of charge in return for not arresting her is balanced by the storage facility manager (Bruce Dern) who gives her food and tries to help her escape. Selby’s Christian family who rejects her prostitute friend (and Selby’s lesbian identity, for that matter) is balanced with a murder victim who does not pick up Wuornos for tricking but offers to help her (she ultimately kills him because he sees her gun, and she is afraid of getting caught). Wuornos’s own speech, in voice-over, that love doesn’t exist, is contradicted by her own claim in the film that she is trying to care for Selby.
This sort of scrupulous hedging can be passed off as ambiguity or paradox, and I would not be surprised if some who watch the movie experience it as such. If they do, they will probably like or appreciate the film more than I did. For my part, I don’t understand why one makes a movie about this subject matter and then worries about showing all sides of the issue. What is left? I had an artistic appreciation for the film, even if it did not resonate with me personally. Charlize Theron gives a gut-wrenching performance. Her penultimate scene with Selby, in which she tries to express her remorse, has all the poignancy of buried but not quite extinguished humanity that “The Lord of the Rings” CGI Gollum lacked.
Theron is also able to convey physically the sense of a person who is just not comfortable in her own skin. She exudes a palpable tension that physically drains both herself and the audience; it is all the more impressive because she is onscreen nearly the entire film.
According to ABCNEWS.com, Wuornos sent a letter to the Florida Court of Appeals stating, “I’m one who seriously hates human life and would kill again.” As a viewer who is deeply ambivalent about the death penalty, I appreciated the film’s attempt to try to avoid becoming a mere propaganda piece (does anyone remember the hideously awful “The Life of David Gale”?). The film also was able to convey to me the sense infused in the above quote (which doesn’t appear in the film) that Wuornos was probably in some ways beyond help and that perhaps—perhaps—execution could have been the only way to end her own suffering since she was in a place from which she could never return to be a productive member of society.
That she was not the sole contributor to how and where she ended up in that place is emblematic of one of the eternally troublesome aspects of human life for many Christians: how do we balance our demand for personal accountability with understanding and compassion for victims of the sins of others?
I said earlier that I thought “Monster” was a little too scared of its material and uncertain of its audience to be a truly great film. It prompts great questions though, and for that it is a worthwhile film to see for people who can tolerate the graphic nature of its presentation.
My Grade: B+ | Violence: Heavy | Profanity: Extreme | Sex/Nudity: Moderate