She’s a man-eater

Believe it or not, that’s Charlize Theron—going against glamour-girl type to play doomed Florida prostitute and murderer Aileen Wuornos.

Believe it or not, that’s Charlize Theron—going against glamour-girl type to play doomed Florida prostitute and murderer Aileen Wuornos.

Rated 3.0

Florida freeway prostitute Aileen Wuornos spent 12 years on death row before being executed in October 2002 for hitching rides with and then murdering a half-dozen “johns” and a lone good Samaritan. She initially claimed to kill only in self-defense. Later, she claimed her robberies culminated in fits of fury spawned by childhood abuse and the need to support a relationship financially with her lesbian lover.

Tabloids and talk shows crowned Wuornos America’s first female serial killer. She became the subject of Nick Broomfield’s 1992 documentary Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Now, writer and director Patty Jenkins exhumes Wuornos’ story with both rather negligible and startling results.

Jenkins titled her first feature Monster as a metaphorical link to the nickname of a Ferris wheel that Wuornos, played by Charlize Theron, once rode as a youngster. Wuornos had boarded the gargantuan attraction excitedly but then threw up all over herself before it made even one full rotation. Yet another supposedly harmless element in her life had turned to humiliate, hurt or destroy her.

From intermittent narration, we learn that Wuornos’ dad’s best friend began raping her when she was 8 years old. Her dad beat her for reporting the continuing assaults. Boys and then men later took advantage of her emotionally shredded condition. She also began using alcohol as a spiritual anesthetic.

Wuornos is on the verge of suicide when we meet her, and she enters into a lesbian affair with the friendly Selby Wall (Christina Ricci in an underdeveloped role). She turns tricks to support their coupling, and when one turns violent, Wuornos begins a killing spree that Jenkins deciphers as part of an oozing infection from her past: a daisy-chain example of violence begetting violence. But Wuornos’ general dereliction and hooliganism dilute her horrors, and one practicing Christian character sums up a theme that seems to be at war with itself here: “People have bad lives, but they move toward the light. Otherwise we would all be hookers.”

Wuornos is first pictured as a romantic at heart: a kid who fantasizes about being beautiful like the women on TV. Whenever she was alone, she would escape into her mind, where she could be someone else. Wuornos heard Marilyn Monroe was discovered in a soda shop and always wondered who was going to discover her, who was going to see her beauty and take her to a new life, a new world where everything would be different. By the time Wuornos meets Selby in a gay bar, all she is searching for is a cold beer. She winds up falling in love, skating arm in arm with her lover to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and having sex as Tommy James and the Shondells croon “Crimson and Clover.”

Former South African model and Joffrey Ballet member Theron provides the most astonishing and potent aspect of the film. Theron gained 20 to 30 pounds for the part, and she wears her new body like a disheveled, sagging suit snagged from a thrift-store rack. Her swollen face is a shifting map of blemishes, and her performance is a jarring collision of repulsion and empathy. I liked Theron in The Cider House Rules, The Devil’s Advocate, The Astronaut’s Wife and 2 Days in the Valley. She is a pretty face that certainly can act. Here she is an unrecognizable walking disaster, a lethal combination of anger, ugliness, despair and recklessness that commands immediate, total attention.

Monster is about the failure of society to protect us from each other and ourselves. It is set in a human minefield in which false hope from such slogans as “Faith can move mountains” and “Everything happens for a reason” ring more hollow than hallowed. It slithers into the darkest corners of carnal desire (“I love ’em, and I hate ’em” says one customer about whores, “but I guess they’re better than my fucking wife.”), and it ponders but unfortunately provides little revelation in a world in which people are smeared with guilt for things they have no control over, chance meetings change the course of lives, and life can become a vicious cycle of Catch-22s.

“I’ll be your meal ticket,” says Wuornos to Selby. “You’ll never meet someone like me again.”

Nor, maybe, will you.