Top Ten List: #7 of 2003 (U.S. releases)
Top Ten List: #4 of 2003 (world premieres)
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Director: Patty Jenkins. Cast: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Annie Corley, Lee Tergesen, Marc Macaulay, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Marco St. John, Scott Wilson. Screenplay: Patty Jenkins.

Photo © 2003 Media 8 Entertainment/Newmarket Films
Aileen Wuornos is on trial again, and this time she isn't even alive to see it. Nor, on this occasion, does she find herself alone among the accused. Rookie director-screenwriter Patty Jenkins and actress-producer Charlize Theron, the women whose creative energies are most responsible for Monster, the new film about Wuornos, keep turning up in the cross-hairs of an impassioned critical debate over their intentions, tactics, and achievements in telling Wuornos' story. In a strange paradox, while Theron is winning a stockpile of critics' awards, including the Golden Globe and in all likelihood the imminent Oscar, the support for her performance is mostly a far-off rumor, suggested by the evidence of Theron's now-cluttered mantel but not really corroborated by much of my first-hand experience.

Which is to say, almost every specific critic I have read about Monster has something nasty to say or imply about Theron: that she is cynically pandering to Academy tastes, that she overdoes the impersonation, that she wallows in surface detail but fails to find the humanity of the character. Even reviewers more kindly disposed to Theron's work give her backhanded compliments, as in it simply isn't her fault if she is being over-praised given the tendencies of modern movie fans to genuflect before any slim beauty who drawls, dresses down, pads on some pounds, and/or dallies in the latex prosthetics game. After all, so goes the epidemic logic, four of the last five Best Actress winners—cross-dressed Gwyneth Paltrow and Hilary Swank in Shakespeare in Love and Boys Don't Cry, poverty-row Halle Berry in Monster's Ball, and nosey Nicole Kidman in The Hours—provide evidence that Academy types go googoo-gaga over just these kinds of surface accessorizing. Come to think of it, Julia Roberts, the missing link in that roster of recent victresses, was widely alleged to have won for Erin Brockovich on the basis of some moneymaker mini-skirts and an imposing armada of push-up bras.

There is no need disputing these trends, which truth be told are hard to deny. But look at the gross assumptions that accompany or underlie them. Look at how the Academy's on-record predilection for visual makeovers melts into a presumption that all cosmetically enhanced performances are, by that very account, dubious if not altogether hollow—as though Oscar's frequent inanity is the crime of those he anoints. As though even within this group, any attentive filmgoer can't see evident distinctions in both aim and achievement between, say, Berry's momentarily interesting experiment in dustbowl chic and Swank's totally absorbed, totally coherent effigy of the tragic Brandon Teena. And, most tellingly of all, look also at how a film and performance who seem to have a destined date with Oscar are suddenly incorporated into a discourse that is all Oscar. Neither the conversation nor the conversants can help seeing Monster as a gold-digging venture (the gold here in question being of the statuette variety), and inevitably, the general critical lens shrinks to the narrow range of movies and the even narrower range of dramatic paradigms that AMPAS tends to favor. Through it all is the swampy odor of women transgressing, betraying us and themselves. Wuornos, we are righteously reminded in several reviews, was quite wrong to do what she did (the sentiment is just as proper as its tone is needlessly superior and its repetition redundant); Theron is thirstily hiking a proven path to newfound respect, eyes peeled for short-cuts; and Jenkins, whose work is often disparaged even where Theron's is praised, proves herself too amateur, too reverent, too much of a hard-lefty criminal apologist to make Monster the movie it needs to be. Ironically, the ideal Wuornos pic implied in these critiques, given their vociferous demands for a clearer condemnation of the character and for a stronger "narrative" foundation, sure sounds an awful lot like the boring Lifetime movie which the same reviewers strangely and pejoratively allege Monster itself to be. (And which, as it happens, has already been made, a decade ago, starring Designing Women's Jean Smart as Wuornos and Empty Nest's Park Overall as her scared and eventually treacherous lover Tyria Moore.)

Somewhere in all this fray, a stunning and deceptively sophisticated movie is at risk of being lost. At great cost to the artists who have been so bold and committed in shaping it. At great cost to a movie year that badly needs a film worth preserving, one that is fully, consistently loyal to its own ambitious project. And at great cost to an ill industry—I don't mean Hollywood, I mean that increasingly misnomered "independent" cinema for which the desolate Pieces of April or bankrupt The Cooler are both lowpoints and emblems—that desperately needs a reminder that art cinema isn't supposed to be a street term for making the same three-act, story-bound, star-cast movies that Hollywood makes, except at a lower price.

Monster's leads are, of course, Hollywood stars, and in the case of Christina Ricci, featured here as the Tyria Moore substitute "Selby Wall," one might well lament that this is the case. Ricci, on screen and off, has recently been radiating a kind of Judy Garland haze: sometimes she's here, sometimes she's not, even when she is. It seems fair to say that she misses more scenes in Monster than she hits, except in one curt exchange with her legal guardian (The Bridges of Madison County's Annie Corley) where Ricci gets precisely right the manic, rambling self-justification of an adolescent who knows she's being patronized but who realizes on some level that her critics, however deeply fallible, may still have a point. Elsewhere in the movie, she's pretty much a blank, a wide circle of forehead where an actress should be.

Luckily, Theron's galvanic performance and Jenkins' smartly architectured script and direction don't need much from the Selby character or the person playing her. It's a central story point that Selby is never as adult as she thinks she is and, even more conspicuously, never as interesting as Wuornos imagines her to be. Or if Selby really is that interesting, Theron's "Lee"—the script never uses any other name for her but this real-life nickname—would be the last to know. Her career as a killer is not only coincident with her newfound affair with Selby, they are almost inextricable from one another within a single, deranged mental calculus: Selby, it appears, becomes for her lover an absolute of Hope and Good whose preservation and gratification demand Lee's vigilant vigilantism. Though at least some of the men Lee meets on her hooking jobs are truly carnivorous and life-ending, and none more so than Victor Corey, the brutalizing rapist who is Lee's first casualty, it is Lee's own mental disease that prompts her to see virtually all of her subsequent clients this way and, in accordance with this perception, to annihilate them. This interpretation of Lee's crimes is palpable throughout much of Monster, which is careful not to flinch from the appalling details of either the sadism inflicted on Lee by Vincent Corey or from the sadism she afterward inflicts on others.

And yet, in saying this thesis is a tangible attitude of the picture, the intimate psychology of Aileen Wuornos is not the grail which Jenkins and Theron are really pursuing here. Just as clearly, Monster is not a case history of the Wuornos murders or of her trial and state execution, matters which Nick Broomfield has more directly engaged in his two documentaries about Wuornos. Jenkins starts her film mere moments before Lee meets Selby Wall and for all intents and purposes ends it with Selby's manipulative extraction of Lee's confession and her public identification of Lee in the courtroom. Otherwise, the trial is a nearly wordless montage at the picture's end, a structural mirror to the prologue of grainy faux-home video that opens the picture. These bookend sequences are filled with the kinds of images that are most eminently predictable within Monster's genre: early snapshots of childhood abuse and sexual objectification, later the tearful mug of the humiliated criminal and the defiant glower of those about to die. It helps that Jenkins and her editors, Arthur Coburn and Jane Kurson, have cut these montages (especially the opener) at a furtive, unsettling pace, slicing these vignettes just as they are reaching awful climaxes of action, and imbuing the film with a nervy, portentous anxiety that transcends cliché.

But even without such deft montage, it couldn't be clearer that these sequences are not the point, not the hidden secret, not the all-explaining kernels of truth or the all-encompassing final statements that Monster wishes to submit. By squeezing family background and juridical bloodthirst to the very extreme ends of her picture, Jenkins has all but parted the waters of what would have been an interesting but less challenging film and found harder, rougher terrain for the film to walk. The same decisions mean farewell, also, to the kind of narrative impetus Hollywood usually prefers, a gathering storm of emotion and a growing crest of identification with the character that eventually tide us into last-act payoffs. Often the invisible filmmaking committee has decided that we'll need some form of "release," whether through easy, exaggerated affect (laughter, tears) or through firm edicts from the film about the moral of its own story. Monster, though, is having none of this. It's a renegade enough picture, and sufficiently well-realized, that the narrating character can give a literal roll-call of clichés in the very last frames and still the film stands proudly, but also mysteriously, above them. Because what, exactly, has Monster offered us in their stead?

Certainly not release. Certainly not an easy, uncomplicated identification with the character. Certainly not a comfortable, expected range of tones or emotions. The lack of unilateral, uncomplicated ethical judgment in Monster, the absence of a story that builds in successive, predictable steps, and the discomfiting sense of being acclimatized to Wuornos' pathological perceptions without quite being able to identify with her are not the "failures" which so many reviews have complacently called them. Quite to the contrary, they are the hallmarks of a dramatic counter-tradition most closely and famously identified with Bertolt Brecht, and which Patty Jenkins has expertly structured and choreographed to supremely epic effect. Who knows (or cares) how consciously intentional or how specifically Brechtian the approach "really" is? The argument would need no defense if Brecht's ideas hadn't been so frequently vulgarized and banalized over the years, and if commercial American film weren't seen, even by its devoted followers, as a routine enterprise within the single domain of mimetic realism, so that the possibility that our film artists may follow other lineages, other goals, didn't seem so foreign. Monster ultimately operates more as a piece of wrenching theater than as a Hollywood for it, and it's a very particular, differently rhythmed, but morally and politically lucid approach.

If you'll bear with me, there are signs and marks all over Monster that place it squarely in that tradition of Brecht's work that comprised plays like The Good Person of Setzuan or Mother Courage and Her Children, allegories of moral quandary in which an outlandish character pursues some highly provoking and often tragic course of action. The plays typically embed the characters within a detailed portrait of regional history and political oppression (even when the region itself only existed in Brecht's mind). As a result, one of many debates the audience is constantly forced to engage, and which the playwright resolutely refuses to resolve, is whether the protagonist's transgressions—cross-dressing and marketeering in Good Person, war-profiteering and reckless endangerment of her brood in Mother Courage—are the opportunistic, illicit choices of dishonorable people or else their excusable, desperate, coerced responses to impossible societies and terrible times. Complicating the ethical claims even further is the vast range of tones that Brecht would often assay in a single piece, so that a work as bleak as Mother Courage still comprehends piquant situational comedy, charming homilies, and a whole host of songs: plaintive ballads, roustabout popular chants, and the kinds of sardonic odes that made Brecht and composer Kurt Weill recognizable names even to people who'd never seen one of the plays. (If you know "Mack the Knife," you know Brecht.)

Brecht is most invoked these days with regard to his famous idea of "alienation," a host of techniques by which the audience is reminded during and within the spectacle that they are regarding an artifice, not a reality, and that the total submersion in emotion which, say, a Hollywood film might wish to instill in its audience is not the kind of reaction Brecht was looking for. These were dense, revolutionary ideas, connected to larger issues of class revolt and the resistance of imposed ideologies. Nowadays, though, all you need is a play character or sitcom actor to speak just once to the audience/camera, or a movie to include a single scene of someone watching a movie, and some critic somewhere will call it "Brechtian." What's missing from that kind of hasty paraphrase is the entire structure in which Brecht's more local effects took shape: the proximity of absurdity and dismay, of crime and jubilee, the obviously-acting actors who refused to "disappear" into their characters, the strange blend of what looked like true history but felt like modern myth, the absence of easy answers and in fact the incessant, deliberate promulgation of new questions.

This is the Brecht, or at least the quality of Brecht, that Monster reprises better and more fruitfully than any recent American movie I can think of. Indeed, some of Monster's most pronounced attributes smack directly of this complex, eternally double-sided approach to theater and performance, and so I have been puzzled to read so many audiences describe these same features as though they were perfectly straightforward. For example, there is a ubiquitous legend that the makeup job by which Charlize Theron has been physically reconfigured as Lee Wuornos has made her a dead-ringer twin for the slain criminal. Which she patently isn't. The sun-damaged hair, searing brown eyes, and jutting jaw are more than enough to put us well in mind of Wuornos, the woman whose pupils virtually dilate to fill her sockets in Broomfield's documentary, as she tells an arraigning judge that she hopes his wife and kids "get raped." Certainly, this is way more Wuornosian than we ever thought Charlize Theron could look, but Theron's appearance in Monster is even more of a caricature of the human face than Wuornos' own. More than that, Jenkins uses this face as its own graphic object in the movie, dissecting it with her scrutinizing lens, incessantly reflecting it in a series of mirrors and cracked surfaces, repeatedly calling attention to its out-in-the-open horror. Witness the close-up on Theron, rain-soaked and on the verge of collapse, that opens the picture. This shot is simultaneously the beginning of a drama and a drama of its own: whose face could this be? Is this a human being? Could this possibly be Charlize Theron? (This is not a lame distraction but a productively unsettling question for viewers aware of the actress... though it should be said that I saw the movie with my partner, who has a biological immunity to celebrity culture and who later wondered, in moved amazement, where the director found such an astounding, odd-looking performer.)

Look, too, at that shot when Selby has just crashed a car on a front lawn, and Lee's animal stare and wild hair appear like the bogeyman out of the wrecked engine's smoke. The shot is pure Expressionism. About half the time, Monster feels like a story about a woman; the other half of the time, Lee seems like a nightmare from which Ricci's Selby, like the film audience, can't quite wake up, a bogeywoman of terror and rash impulse that could almost literally, at any point, explode. Monster never settles down into minute characterization, just as it never gives itself over fully to caricature or ghoulish frightfulness. Clearly, it is Monster's contention that Wuornos is both victim and stalker, a common woman and a dark phantom of a cruel, terrified society. By towing this line between opposed extremes throughout its running time, Monster forces us to confront this dual identity, in a way that not only resonates with Wuornos' own evident schizophrenia, but which underlines the schizophrenia of our own reactions to her: horror mixed with pity, zealous condemnation merged with prurient curiosity, and maybe even sympathy.

Looking at this ravaged face so perpetually also reminds us that Wuornos' face, however garish, is almost literally the only thing this woman has. The rest of the characters, except for Selby, are defined by everything they do have: money, possessions, mobility, all of it crystallized in the recurring images of cars. Lee makes a habit of stealing these from the johns she murders, to the point where it's hardly clear whether the revenge or the vehicle is what she most craves. The symbolism is so stable and efficient that several times the film only silently telegraphs to us that Lee has killed again because we see her behind a new set of wheels, which is a marked advance from the bicycle she can't quite manage in one pitiable scene, or the bumper car she rides around in while Selby flirts with some other women at a carnival.

So often, we fall into the trap of believing that screenwriting is about witty dialogue, shock surprises, or gratifying plot construction. Jenkins' dazzling facility with this the craft, in only her first feature-length film, has much more to do with subtler and trickier techniques, like the repetition of key motifs to create their own ironies (guns, cars, faces, cleaning rituals). Jenkins is also a master of pointed contrasts, structuring the film in a chain of irreducible oppositions and sad, pathetic alternatives. In one key sequence of cross-cuts, Selby waits for Lee at a roller-rink, thinking she has been stood up for a date, while Lee is in fact being mauled and tortured by Vincent Corey, and then administering her own lethal justice. The basic ethical question of whether this murder is "justified" is only the first layer of a sequence that also asks us to ponder the gulf between Selby's disappointment, which Lee is forced to grovel for, and Lee's own unspeakable devastation, for which life offers no answer. We also can't help but notice the massive degree of danger Lee has courted (with the worst bad fortune) in order to afford a few nights of skating and booze with Selby, pleasures that must seem like infinitesimal payoffs to the audience, even if the encounter had not ended as it did. But then, we are not Lee, and Jenkins thus uses trenchant editing to expose the differences not just between Selby's life and Lee's but between our assumptions about life and about tolerable risks and those of Lee Wuornos, which deserve but likely confound our attempt at understanding.

Monster opens with Lee on the verge of committing suicide, and because we know where the story is going, we are forced to ask: do we wish she had done it, given the seven lives that would (most likely) have been saved? In Jenkins' dramatic shaping of Monster, cruel death is a certainty: who, when, and why are the variables, and they might start to seem like small potatoes in a vastly pessimistic worldview if Jenkins weren't so studious about making each death such a horror, and such a deeply sad occasion. But equally sad, however misguided, are Lee's attempts at explanation. Late in the picture, just before Jenkins recurs to the scene of Lee considering suicide beneath an overpass, Selby has finally realized (or admitted to having realized) that Lee has subtended their whole affair with bloody money and a pile of corpses, implying the darkest possible view of love's price. At this juncture, Theron explodes into a devastating monologue about two views of the world: Selby's, where it must seem like much is possible and beautiful in life, and Lee's, with its terrible knowledge that living is pain and happiness all but impossible. Theron is brilliant with this speech, rueful but fiercely indignant; she saves the scene from Ricci's catatonic approach and from its mawkish potential to be The Scene where Aileen lays out the whole movie for us. Amazingly, the speech seems both to draw the movie together and yet also to turn it on its head. It is after all possible that Lee, who sees herself as a long-ago casualty of life, is trying to protect Selby's rare breed of innocence. At the same time, isn't it Lee who is constantly addicted to the notion that things might improve, applying for jobs she'll never get, imagining life as a veterinarian or as President, getting in truck cabs and station wagons with the unwarrantable conviction that she'll get out of them unscathed? Isn't it really Selby, who as a teenager has been kicked out of her home (her entire state) by homophobic parents and who "knows" nothing good is ever going to happen to her, who is really the relationship's chief pessimist? Does Lee see this? Or have we just reached the peak of Lee's delusions and miscalculations, just when she seemed to be the most lucid and testimonial?

It is wonderful, brave, and necessary that Monster never takes a stand on this scene, or on any of the other riddles that bind the film together. Jenkins refuses to undercut the character's right to be an enigma, nor her right to a sincere point of view at the center of her own story, even if her story is one of ultimate mayhem and self-determined doom. Even when the movie veers into kitsch, as a story about Florida biker-bars and jukebox dreaming is wont to do, Jenkins is determined and compassionate enough to find the beating heart of the moment. When Lee and Selby share their first kiss and, much later, make love for the first time, Jenkins swells the soundtrack with Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" and Tommy James' "Crimson & Clover." These are rock anthems as campy-dreamy as they get, but in both cases the amplification of cheese (along with the accompanying images) has the effect not of cheapening the characters but of locating the gargantuan emotional reach of the songs. Journey must rank somewhere in the pantheon of beaten-down optimists; it makes sense that they would be the referent for a moment of bliss in Aileen Wuornos' life, but it's also upsetting that her index of bliss is pop-rock in a roller-rink. There is so much in Monster that is easy to feel superior to, and yet Jenkins makes it impossible to feel that way—you leave the film humbled by your inability to fully explain people and situations that our moral reflexes and often our social and regional prejudices misrepresent as quick studies. Note that Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven imparted virtually the same moral—if films, in fact, have morals—but its high-melodramatic style and spit-polished bourgeois shine made it everyone's favorite movie. Of course, Julianne Moore's Cathy Whitaker didn't "do anything wrong," but if all we can see when we see Lee Wuornos, especially Theron's grand-sized indication of Lee Wuornos, is a woman who did wrong, we are surely exercising very limited perceptions. Yes, Aileen Wuornos was hugely guilty, but so too was the world that maimed her and killed her. These are not mutually exclusive statements, nor does one excuse the other. A judge's verdict is not a final word, nor is it the job of a filmmaker: a verdict, for an artist, is a window into a real story, probably a stalemate between contrasting stories, and Monster adeptly finds them.

So it is astonishing to watch the movie come together not as a series of plot- or character-developments, which would have been both easy and specious, but as a series of rigorous contradictions, as messy as life. Jenkins' film simultaneously tells a multitude of possible stories about this figure Aileen Wuornos, a "real woman" whose biography was already submerged beneath legend and projection by the time she was put to death. It makes perfect sense to make a film about the legends, the competing projections; it's probably the only viable choice. It is amazing to see a young actress challenged in this way, to spend a whole movie playing a believable person, a nightmare grotesque, and also a figure of dark allegory. It is even more amazing to see Theron achieve that balance so expertly, at least as well as De Niro managed the same feat in Raging Bull. Wuornos' story touches so many raw cultural nerves about violence, sexuality, vengeance, economics, misogyny, jurisprudence, and imposture. She offers one of the reigning examples in modern America of a life that proves we are not all created equal, we are neither given the same chances nor do we exercise the same levels of ethical self-control, and we may never understand one another, though we must try.

Daily life doesn't give us the right almanac for understanding the criminal, the sexual victim, the disenfranchised, the psychotic, or the murderous; nor does standard, business-as-usual theatrical realism, which now exercises a virtual monopoly over our screen depictions of ourselves. Art has to stretch to show us these things, especially when they are fused in a single personality, and the artists have to risk defying our expectations, offending our sensibilities, and looking foolish or confused in the attempt. This movie is not about latex prosthetics, and it is not about winning Golden Globes. This movie has the rare distinction of being about a person, a whole and difficult person. The filmmakers have had the grace not to try to explain everything. They have also had the ingenuity to show us a great deal. Monster deserves to keep winning prizes, but the movie itself is the real treasure. Grade: A–

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress: Charlize Theron

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress (Drama): Charlize Theron

Other Awards:
Berlin Film Festival (2004): Best Actress (Theron; tie)
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Best Actress (Theron)
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Actress (Theron); Best First Feature
National Society of Film Critics: Best Actress (Theron)
National Board of Review: Breakthrough Performance, Female (Theron)
Satellite Awards: Best Actress, Drama (Theron)

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