Aileen Wuornos (perhaps best known in the UK as the subject of two Nick Broomfield documentaries) was a prostitute convicted in 1990 of killing seven men and executed in Florida in 2002. Patty Jenkins’ film dramatises the months leading up to her arrest, starting with the moment she met Selby Wall, the teenager who would become her lover. Wournos had been a hooker since the age of 13, leaving behind her a horrific childhood filled with abuse. ‘Hooking’ had become second nature to her, and she managed to eke out a skid-row existence. Meeting Selby gave Aileen someone to care for for the first time, but any hope of a happy future was destroyed when she shot dead a john who had raped her and was about to kill her. Six more bodies followed, all men unlucky enough to pick her up.
Monster is marked primarily – for better or worse – by Charlize Theron’s remarkable physical transformation from gorgeous model-turned-actress to ungainly, ravaged streetwalker-turned-killer. Some of this change is prosthetic, and it is a little off-putting at first, as you try to spot the blonde glamour girl beneath the make-up, extra pounds and general scuzzy appearance. But the sheer force of Theron’s Oscar-winning performance, the foul-mouthed, barely-contained rage that Wuornos feels at the shitty cards that life has dealt her, convinces pretty quickly. Christina Ricci is frequently as good as Theron – hers is a less showy role, but in a way just as difficult – the shy, awkward, sexually-confused girl who is drawn to Wuornos’ charismatic personality and finds it impossible to walk away even when she learns of her crimes. Elsewhere, Bruce Dern cuts a sympathetic figure as an older man, also down-on-his-luck and protective of Aileen, while Annie Corley injects a little humour as Selby’s overprotective, God-fearing aunt.
These performances are terrific, but the film itself can’t quite match them. Monster is stylishly directed, convincingly capturing the whiskey-sodden, neon-lit world of sleazy bars and motels that Wuornos inhabits. But while it’s not predictable as such, nothing really unexpected happens either. Jenkins goes out of her way to emphasise the character over the crime, attempting to sympathise with Wuornos and her horrendous life without condoning her killing spree. But this approach, though commendable, leaves the writer/director neither understanding her subject nor keeping an objective, observational distance. Moreover, the way Aileen's victims become less and less deserving as the film progresses does seem somewhat contrived, and with very little back-story, only Ricci’s empathetic acting gives the character of Selby any depth.
It’s an undeniably compelling watch though, shocking without ever playing for shock effect. And while the serial killer film is a well-trodden path, full marks to Jenkins for attempting (if not entirely succeeding) to make her entry a genre rarity – a humane drama about real people.
American director and graduate of the American Film Institute who made her feature debut in 2003 with the Oscar-winning Monster, based on the true story of serial killer Aileen Wuornos. She went on to work in television for the next decade until, after a lot of pre-production, she was picked to helm the Wonder Woman movie of 2017. This proved to be one of the biggest hits of its year, and Jenkins was kept on to create the sequel.