Monster (2003)

Monster first published by Movie Gazette

Virtually every film ever made about a serial killer includes a scene where the main character stares into a mirror. This device is an effective means for inviting viewers to imagine how the killer sees himself, but it is also a dreadful cliché, so its repeated use (a staggering four times) in Patty Jenkins’ Monster is the kind of multiple offence which normally would guarantee the death penalty from discerning judges. Yet here such scenes come with extenuating circumstances, for the killer in question is not a man but a woman (based on, and named after, the real-life Aileen Wuornos); and while the reflected image of a male psychopath can offer little more than a cold, empty stare, a woman’s reflected gaze captures a whole history – a very female history – of low self-esteem and anxieties about beauty, all imposed by the expectations of patriarchy. More particularly, if you look hard enough at Aileen’s blemished, washed-out face, her thick, chapped lips, and her corpulent figure, you can just about make out the heavily disguised form of model Charlize Theron, who has ‘uglied up’ and packed on the pounds for the rôle.

It might be said that the decision to cast statuesque, platinum blonde Theron as unhinged, chubby trailer trash smacks of a certain cynicism. It is, after all, not so very long since Nicole Kidman earned herself a pretty Oscar donning an ugly prosthetic nose in The Hours – and although Theron received no actor’s fee for Monster (which she helped produce), she did have a special clause in her contract offering a bonus for an Oscar nomination (which she duly won). Yet the truth is that costume and make-up have always been a part of the performer’s stock-in-trade, and extreme disguises, far from being something merely to hide behind, can often bring out the best in an actor. Without a headlining star like Theron, Monster would never have been financed. As it is, Theron gives her most memorable performance to date as the low-rent Aileen, one moment all swagger, the next vulnerability, and then exploding with pent-up rage.

What is more, she has been well cast. The fact that Theron’s own mother killed her father brings a strange biographical frisson to the part – and Jenkins’ script focusses from the very start on Aileen’s childhood dreams of becoming “a big big star, or maybe just beautiful – beautiful and rich like the women on TV”. In other words, buried deep inside this disturbed, over-sized woman, there is a thin, waifish Theron just waiting to be recognised and adored. By the time the main narrative begins, Aileen is a cheap hooker contemplating suicide, but when the closeted lesbian Selby (Christina Ricci) comments on how beautiful Aileen is, all Aileen’s old dreams are rekindled, giving her a new reason to live. Desperately seeking redemption in their relationship, Aileen continues hooking to support Selby, but is soon also killing and robbing the men who pick her up.

Monster plays itself out as a tragic love story, and while Aileen does gradually become a cold-blooded, and increasingly deranged, murderess, she is also portrayed as a victim, abused and hideously betrayed by the film’s many other (male) monsters – all of which ensures that the viewer’s sympathies and prejudices are given a very rough ride.

strap: With its serial killer also a serial victim, whose gruff exterior conceals fragile beauty, Patty Jenkins’ film asks who the real monster is.

© Anton Bitel