Upon seeing Monster it’s easy to understand why Charlize Theron elected to portray serial killer Aileen Wournos. After reading the script, I’m willing to bet she should practically feel the weight of the Oscar statuette already in her hand. It would be a great part for any actress, though few could probably submerge themselves into the role the way Theron did in her rather amazing performance.
Of course, when I heard that a movie based on the life of Wournos was in the works, I knew I would see it eventually. I’ve written before about my fascination with crime stories, particularly those involving murderers or serial killers. (I think it goes back to my childhood, when I stumbled upon a copy of Helter Skelter among some books my brother left behind when he joined the Air Force.) I think what I’m fascinated with is how people become murderers or serial killers and what in their lives leads them to the point where that choice is made, and what influences that choice. I’ve always believed that “monsters” are not born, but made. So, I’ve always been interested in the stories of how they’re made.
When I saw “based on a true story” flash on the screen before the beginning of the movie, I should have known that liberties would be taken with Wournos’ story. I would come to see the reason behind the changes in the story, as they make sense from a storytelling/filmaking viewpoint, but they would also leave me with a nagging feeling that however much they helped the story, they hurt it a little too.
From the beginning we’re dropped into the rock bottom of Wournos’ adult life, narrated by her, as is the rest of the movie. We’re given flashbacks of her past, during the narration, that hint at an unhappy and probably abusive childhood. And that’s about it. We don’t get much more of Wournos’ story except for what she decides to share with her girlfriend, a victim of hers, and with the audience through her narration.
The girlfriend, Selby, portrayed by Christina Ricci in the movie, is entirely fictional from what I can tell, and a far cry from Wournos’ actual partner, Tyria Moore. Tyria Moore worked as a hotel maid. Selby, in the movie, is a middle class young woman estranged from her religious family because of her lesbianism, and from an entirely different world than Wournos.
Selby is my big problem with the movie. From the beginning I find it hard to buy her character’s involvement with Wournos’. Next to the make-up job done on Theron, Ricci looks downright clean-cut as Selby. I found it hard to believe that Ricci’s Selby would find Theron’s Wournos desireable. Their incongruity as a couple stuck with me through the entire movie. (There’s a moment in the movie when Wournos — from a distance — observes Selby among some lesbian friends, that makes one think Wournos realizes the the unlikeliness of their pairing, and is thus more desperate to hold on to Selby. Selby’s naivete’ was also a bit too much for me to believe as the movie went on, from her complete trust of Wournos’ explanations when she shows up with yet another victim’s car, to having no questions until Wournos confesses one murder to her. And in sending Wournos out to get another car, for them to make their escape to … wherever, Selby turns a corner that seems to make her complicit in Wournos’ final murder, as she knows how it is Wournos happens to come by vehicles. The only thing that rings true is her betrayal of Wournos from the witness stand.
I can understand Selby as a device to inject the movie with a love story made more compelling by it’s impossibility. Selby gives the Wournos’ of the flim something to fight for, dream for, live for and thereby kill for. The film shows Wournos’ making efforts at going “straight” applying for “straight” jobs that one knows she stands no chance of getting, attempts that would be nearly comic except that the script and Theron so effectively portray the absolute hopelessness of this quest for a way out, so much so that one feels Wournos’ final humiliation almost as deeply as she does in the movie. And it all stems from a desperate desire to hold on to Selby and to build some other life with her. One almost wants Wournos and Selby to make their getaway, and get out of the life they seem trapped in. But the trip to oblivion that began as a slow ride eventually becomes a speedy descent with no brakes. You know there is no other way this story can end, except badly.
Theron as Wournos is a revelation as an actress. It’s a bit cliche, but Theron – a stunning beauty – is one of those actresses who seemed to need to make herself ugly in order to prove herself as an actress, lest she be thought to have merely gotten by, and gotten parts, based on her looks alone. With her portrayal of Wournos’ she take full advantage of the opportunity to transform herself – gaining weight, donning dentures that give her a pronounced overbite, and make-up that leaves her skin freckled and blotchy. In the film, Wournos’ seems always to be covered with some oily, dirty film, that no amount of showering in cheap hotels or washing up in service station bathrooms can ever erase. It’s as if she is so permanently and deeply soiled that she will never come clean.
Theron looks hauntingly like Wournos; hopeless, desperate , and coming very close to making her a sympathetic character. However, extra weight and make up do not a performance make. Theron’s courageous willingness to go into dark places within herself as an actress — those depths that she has to plumb in order to make the Aileen Wournos of the film real to us — is what makes her performance the most unforgetable thing about the flim, is by itself reason enough to see the film.
I said before that I believe “monsters” are not born, but made. From my perspective one of the drawbacks of the film is that we get to see so little firsthand of what made Wournos’ the “monster” she is labeled as by the movie. I write some of this off to the simple realities of making a flim from real life. There is not enough time, space or money in creating 90 to 120 minutes of film to include all the nuances, events, random happenings and chance decisions that go into making a life or that bring one to the business end up a gun making the decision to pull the trigger. Except for brief flashes in the beginning, and what Wournos’ character reveals, we’re left to wonder what happened to her before she began her murderous spree, and perhaps thats’ best. Perhaps the movie doesn’t need to give us any pat answers, or make any final decisions about whether Wournos’ was a monster “born” or “made.” In that case, perhaps there title is lacking a bit of punctuation; a question mark at the end.