April 23, 2006 -- O.K., so I am three years late getting to this one, but I finally saw “Monster,” the film in which Charlise Theron gave an academy award-winning performance. This is one of those small, independent films that was not widely distributed. For some reason, the local Albertson's grocery had it in their video department as a dollar rental, so I rented the DVD. This is a powerful film and Theron's performance is as spectacular as advertised.
The film is based on a true story about Aileen Wuornos, one of the rarest kinds of felons in existence, a female serial killer. Theron plays this character with a smoldering rage that burns up the screen. Aileen, a woman who has been abused her whole life, is an emotional basket case. A prostitute, one of her Johns beats her up, evidently intending to kill her, but she turns the tables and kills him first. The killing unleashes years of pent-up rage. Once that darkness in her soul is released it is not easily bottled up again.
The film centers on Aileen's relationship with a young, pretty, spoiled girl, Selby Wall (played by Christina Ricci of “The Opposite of Sex”). Selby is supposedly at least 18 years old, but she looks and acts much younger. She becomes one of Aileen's only two friends. The other is a barfly named Thomas (Bruce Dern of “All the Pretty Horses”). Soon, Aileen becomes sexually involved with Selby. The relationship is destructive, with Selby demanding money and attention from Aileen, but giving nothing in return. Scared after committing her first murder, Aileen tries to go straight, but is unable to land a job. She returns to prostitution, and killing in order to satisfy Selby's need to be coddled.
The film examines the differences in economic and social status between Aileen and Selby, and also between Aileen and some of her customers. The movie makes the argument that Aileen's story was the result of fate, not of her own choices, that she was a victim of circumstance. The film also makes the argument that the rest of us, living in our comfortable lifestyles, benefitting from advanced educational backgrounds and less threatening family environments, should not be so quick to judge Aileen, who had been on her own since the age of 13. This is the sort of thinking that gives liberals a bad name. What Aileen did was not inevitable just because it happened that way. Everyone has choices, including Aileen. She made a lot of very bad choices. She ought to take responsibility for those. Blaming her actions on fate is a weak and unconvincing argument.
At the end of the film, there is an interesting contrast between Aileen and Shelby. While Shelby takes advantage of the legal system to escape being held accountable for her own culpability in the murders, Aileen becomes the scapegoat, whose sacrifice is meant to be a balm for the pain of the victims' families. Shelby is only too happy to play the role of victim, claiming she was only an innocent bystander. Shelby benefits from her baby-faced good looks and manners, as well as her family's money. Aileen has none of those advantages. Isn't it strange that both of these women are playing the victim card? Isn't anyone responsible for anything they do?
Some male serial killers get the death penalty for their crimes, some don't. Maybe one of the reasons that Aileen Wuornos was executed was because she was a woman who wielded deadly force against men. Men in our society find powerful women very frightening. Maybe that's one of the reasons there has never been a woman president in this country, and there are relatively few women in high positions of power. The film does touch upon this aspect of the story in a few places. Theron gives an Oscar-worthy performance and Ricci is just as good. Dern and the other actors also give good performances. The film is deftly directed by Patty Jenkins (“Velocity Rules”). Come to think of it, there, there are very few women directors in Hollywood. Is it the powerful woman thing? This film rates a B.
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