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Suppose for a moment that you everywhere you turned throughout your life, you found nothing but betrayal and disappointment. Now suppose you found someone who made you feel better about yourself and the world. What would you do to hold onto that? Would you feel remorse for taking the lives of those you felt victimized you all along?

These are questions posed by MONSTER. The film doesn't offer any clear cut answers and neither will I. This is the true story of Aileen Wuornos, a woman called the first female serial killer in America (Incidentally, this is a glaring fallacy which has been scrutinized by most crime researchers.). She gained a lot of publicity in the weeks leading up to her execution, an event which just so happened on my 27th birthday and just before I myself moved to the Sunshine State. If you've seen AILEEN WUORNOS: THE SELLING OF A SERIAL KILLER, a rare good documentary by publicity hound Nick Broomfield, you'll know she's not the easiest person in the world to sympathize with. And why would you? This is, after all, a woman who shot and killed seven men and took off with their meager belongings. And who knows what the film glosses over in order to make the story more palatable? But perhaps the most shocking thing MONSTER does is provide the circumstances leading up to her killing spree.

When Aileen (Charlize Theron), a homeless prostitute, walks into a gay bar, she is not looking for anything except to drink down her last five dollars. She had just received the payment after servicing her last john. She is about to kill herself, but wants to spend the money so her degrading work would not count for nothing. She makes a silent pact with God that if there is anything in this life worth living for, it had better show itself before the five dollars is gone. That is when she is approached by Selby Wall (Christina Ricci - SLEEPY HOLLOW, BUFFALO '66, THE OPPOSITE OF SEX). Selby (the name has been changed) is an insecure and confused young lesbian who lives under the tyrannical rule of her homophobic family as well as the people she stays with. She doesn't want anything except to talk, which suits Aileen just fine since she is not gay. Still, the two get along famously. In Selby, Aileen sees someone untarnished by the horrors of the world. She allows herself to see past the gender issue, and the two fall in love.

When they strike out on their own, Aileen does what she can to make ends meet. She tries to find a job, but does not want to go back to hooking. What she is not telling Selby is that her last john scared and hurt her so much, that she wound up killing him. But, having no education, experience or even a resume, she finds doors are continually slammed in her face. Eventually, she returns to the life she knew, cursing herself for daring to think the world had anything better to offer.

Still, for the most part she stops prostituting herself. She takes the johns, which are mostly misogynistic sleazeballs, as far as she deems safe and then shoots them. She winds up stashing the body, stealing their money and driving their car. She does her best to provide for Selby, never thinking that it could end.

Patty Jenkins has crafted a film that succeeds where Kimberly Pierce's BOYS DON'T CRY, another indie film about Southern crime, fell short. In Pierce's film, she succeeded in showing the tragedy surrounding the case, but made all the people around Brandon Teena so obnoxious that you wondered why anyone would want to be part of that life. MONSTER shows people who start out as obnoxious, grow increasingly desperate and quickly let their consciences shine through. The film's title is ironic, since the most controversial thing the film does is portray Aileen Wuornos as very human.

Ever since the old exploits of Billy the Kid, films have sought to raise their subjects up higher than they probably deserved. Some exploit their subjects into murderous superhumans like some of the recent straight to video serial killer fare. Others take questionable historical figures and gloss over every non-heroic act committed, as was the case in Danny DeVito's HOFFA, which is two miracles shy of making the labor leader into Jesus Christ. I will not presume to judge the morality of MONSTER any more than I would presume to judge the morality of the people involved. There are a lot of facts we just don't know. I will however congratulate Jenkins on making a severely effecting piece of work.

At the center of that is Charlize Theron. In any film like this, you run the risk of having the viewer not see the person, but the actor portraying the person. No risk of that here. From the moment you hear her voice, any thoughts of performance go right out the window. It is left for the viewer to marvel at the work only after the film is done. There is simply no precedent for Theron's amazing performance. Charlize Theron has been occasionally horrible (TRAPPED) and occasionally good (THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE). But nothing she has done in the past has even come close to hinting she was capable of such an amazing performance. She should be a shoe-in for a Best Actress Oscar (Diane Keaton doesn't need it) and rightfully so. This is the type of work the awards were made for. Much has been made of the superior makeup job in the film, turning the former South African model Theron into a penniless streetwalker. But while the work is incredible, it sidesteps the actual point. Even if you had never seen a single picture or heard a single interview with Wuornos, you will know where Theron is coming from. The performance goes far beyond mere imitation into a zone all it's own. It is one of the greatest acting jobs I have seen by anyone in many years.

It's nice to see Christina Ricci in a good part again. After a couple years of roles that were even smaller than usual, she has come back and shown a character who is naive but not a pushover, who is vulnerable but not blameless. When Aileen and Selby meet, Selby's arm is in a cast and she claims she can't work. However, even after the cast is off, she stays home. The film does not say anything overtly about this, but seems to imply that she may be reluctant to get a job on her own - perhaps because it reminds her of the job her strict father would like to give her, or perhaps out of laziness. We are never quite sure. But the cast almost seems like an excuse. Last time I checked, you could wear a cast and still be a cashier. And what about afterwards? And for that matter, what about Aileen?

It's impossible to get a real timeframe for what is happening when. It seems to take place fairly recently, but then you see bell-bottomed kids rollerskating. Okay, so middle 1970s then? Suddenly, Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" begins to play. That would make it early 1980s. The tune switches to INXS's "New Sensation." Mid 1980s? (Note how the songs are there to enhance the story, not serve as soundtrack filler) At first, it might seem like this is very sloppy. But by not worrying about how much time has passed, we actually see a slice of life. We don't think about when such-and-such event is going to put a wrench in the works. It allows the story to progress naturally. For the record, I was dead-wrong on the dates anyway. Wuornos committed her murders between 1989 and 1990, much more recent than I had suspected.

The film manages to avoid being preachy by not passing any firm judgments. You can think up a number of questions that would lead credence for or against Aileen and Selby. But the film will not state these questions itself. The film has been accused of glamorizing Wuornos. Well, that depends on what you think of her behavior on screen. It has been confused of being a man-hating film. Not really, since there are sympathetic male characters in the film. MONSTER is, however, seen through the eyes of a manhater. Wuornos had long since lost respect for men, having been brutalized by them for so long. By the time, she did notice some compassion within the male gender, there was no turning back.

Wuornos was raped and beaten as a child. Her father was a child molester who killed himself while serving a prison sentence. Her mother abandoned her. Her family disowned her. She was a hooker from the time she turned thirteen. Her grandmother, one of two guardians, was an abusive alcoholic who later committed suicide. Her brother died of throat cancer. She was shipped away to a home for unwed mothers to have a bastard child when she was 14 before being turned back onto the streets. You could see this as society's means of creating an unrepentant killer, or you could see it as a list of paper thin excuses. MONSTER won't tell you which, although it will cause you to gauge your own responses to the crimes and the people behind them.

I have no concrete opinion of the death penalty and thank God MONSTER stops short of providing a commentary on Death Row. It is more concerned with more complex issues that lead up to the crimes. Should we hate the sin but love the sinner? I try, but often I fail. Still, few films have made me think as much as MONSTER and it does cause one to evaluate their entire emotional spectrum. If that statement scares you off, it's a shame. This look at the real-life horror in our society provides the same traumatic tension apparent in Lucky McKee's darkly comic, MAY. It's a spectacular achievement from just about everyone involved.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis