Thanks to the strikingly beautiful Afrikaner Charlize Theron, Patty Jenkins’s Monster has drawn huge publicity. Even more so since Theron won both the Golden Globe and Oscar for her extraordinary performance in the film. Despite the hype surrounding the use of make-up and the fact that Theron gained 30 pounds for the film, it is a transformative role for Charlize who truly inhabits Aileen Wuornos. Theron is usually cast as a leggy blonde: her last outing was as a safecracker in the remake of The Italian Job. Apparently she read the script for Monster on the set of that film and jumped at the chance to play something vastly different.
Aileen Wuornos worked as a highway prostitute from the age of 13 and was executed in Florida on the personal order of Jeb Bush in 2002, 12 years after she was arrested for killing seven men over a nine-month period in 1989. Of course, serial killer stories are not new but female serial killers with a lesbian twist are relatively rare. Wuornos was described as a monster by the media covering the case and painter turned director Patty Jenkins deliberately appropriated this title whilst trying to portray a very different aspect of Wuornos’s life.
Patty Jenkins is a graduate of the Directors Program run by the American Film Institute. Velocity Rules, the short film she made as her thesis, won the short film category at the 2001 Telluride Indiefest. As it transpires, Jenkins met Wuornos before she was executed and was granted permission to access and use all the letters Wuornos wrote whilst in prison. Jenkins knew she had the material she needed to construct her own Wuornos story, part fact, part fiction, part take on the desperate measures people take to be loved.
Monster is an indie film shot on a tiny budget over 29 days in the heat of central Florida. It is a strong directorial debut but it does have its flaws. It is a teensy bit try-hard and the Christina Ricci lesbian role is completely underwritten so the supposed great love of Aileen’s life comes across as a caricature, swamped by the overwhelming strength of the Wuornos character. Jenkins succeeds in garnering empathy for a damaged woman who lost her way. Was she really a lesbian? Wuornos herself never claimed to be and Jenkins leans on the looking-for-love theory that landed Wuornos in the arms of a woman. Monster is a devastating story but the journey is well worth taking if only to watch Charlize transform herself so radically. It is also good to see the great Bruce Dern, one of only a few actors to have killed John Wayne on screen, in a supporting role.