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Monster (January 6/04)

It's hard not to be impressed by Charlize Theron's performance in Monster. Aside from transforming herself physically to play serial killer Aileen Wuornos - she gained a hefty amount of weight and has had any trace of beauty removed from her face - Theron absolutely becomes this woman, to the point where it's virtually impossible to recognize her (the only dead giveaway is her memorable smile). The ample make-up and false teeth (which seem to have been molded from Steve Buscemi's chompers) are initially somewhat distracting, but once you get past that (which only takes five, ten minutes), it's easy enough to see that Theron has created a genuine character here.

Set in the late '80s, Monster opens with Wuornos on the verge of suicide; years of working as a prostitute and living homeless have seemingly taken their toll. Things change, though, after she meets Selby Wall (Christina Ricci) - a shy lesbian who initially hits on Wuornos but soon becomes her friend. For the first time in her life, Wuornos has someone to love (albeit in a platonic way) and makes an effort to turn her life around. When that doesn't work (she walks into a lawyer's office without a resume hoping for a job as a secretary), Wuornos grudgingly returns to her life on the street in order to support herself and Wall. After an outing with a trick goes horribly awry and she's forced to kill him in self defense, she begins murdering her johns and taking all their money (and usually their cars, too).

Monster is extremely reminiscent of certain movies of the '70s, films like Five Easy Pieces and The Conversation, in that it's content to exist more as a character study than anything else. Which is fine, up to a point; as an examination of Wuornos and to a much lesser extent Selby, the film works. But like those much lauded movies of the '70s, unless you're willing to accept the non-existent pace and emphasis on human behavior, the film's not going to mean much.

But then again, Theron's performance is compelling enough to ensure the movie remains entertaining. Though she's never really offered up any kind of indication that she was capable of this type of performance, Theron does a remarkable job of becoming a completely different person. Director Patty Jenkins (who also wrote the script) often goes a bit too far in asking us to feel sorry for this woman - she did murder several men in cold blood, after all - but Wuornos deserves some sympathy, as we learn about her horrific background.

But the film never quite becomes as engrossing or electrifying as it clearly wants to be, primarily because Jenkins keeps the emphasis off Wuornos' dark side. The film deals mostly with her attempts to go straight and establish a new life with Wall, which is fairly intriguing - for a while, anyway. That Wall isn't developed to the extent that Wuornos is doesn't help, as the film spends a lot of time dealing with their relationship. The plotless nature of the movie eventually catches up to it, which leads to a film that isn't exactly compelling - though Theron's performance ensures that it's always interesting.

out of

© David Nusair