There have been quite a few striking debuts, over the year just ended, from new directors making their first feature-length narrative or documentary. Mark Moskowitz, who helmed the amazing Stone Reader, leaps to mind immediately. Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, the co-auteurs who took Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor from panel to screen, also belong in this group. No less impressive were the contributions of director-cinematographer Paxton Winters for his as yet unreleased Turkish terrorist comedy Crude, and Helen Stickler for her insightful, pop-historical Stoked: The Rise & Fall of Gator. On a different yet still significant plane, 2003 introduced us to Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent), Mark Decena (Dopamine), and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass). All of these filmmakers offered fresh, compelling views along paths too seldom trod, and certainly all of them leave Sofia Coppola in the dust when it comes to storytelling.
Now, at the cusp of the year’s turning, arrives a debut that’s so astonishingly assured, I am giddy and trembling with the excitement of cinema’s power at its highest. One hallmark of greatness is the ability to take unlikely subject matter and give it back to us in such a way that the end result elates our senses. The film Monster, a biography of the prostitute-turned-killer Aileen Wuornos, does that. Monster’s writer-director, Patty Jenkins, stands poised for an illustrious and, I hope, long cinematic career. Solely on the strength of this singular achievement, she deserves her spot in the pantheon.
“I always wanted to be in the movies,” we hear the adult Wuornos (Charlize Theron) state, as postcard-size images of her childhood open the film. The screen within a screen gradually expands: the disparity between hopes voiced and horrors glimpsed itself grows wider. The pretty little blonde girl who wanted to be the next Marilyn Monroe soon sports a black eye; the teenager she becomes pulls up her blouse for the benefit of neighborhood boys who gawk and run. “I was always secretly looking for who was gonna discover me,” Wuornos continues, as the girl in the images turns repeatedly to men who coarsen and degrade her. “They would see me for what I could be, and think I was beautiful . . . I lived that way in my head—dreaming like that.”
This quick-sketch montage works on several levels. Who can’t identify with plans, visions, circumstances gone awry? Jenkins cuts straight through the news media mythology that surrounded Wuornos, a Florida streetwalker who killed six men in 1989 and 1990, and shows a fallible human being who fought as long as she could the madness of a society that pushes people to extremes. What happened to Wuornos, Jenkins discreetly points out, could happen to anyone. After, however, that “anyone” has been branded a “monster,” we—as a culture—cease listening and thinking. We believe the hype.
In a sense, Wuornos has become a movie star. Nick Broomfield’s second documentary about her (the first was in 1992) is also about to be released, and here, in Monster, Charlize Theron, a stunning actress who could very well be in the Monroe mode herself, thoroughly inhabits the late killer’s sun-blotched skin. Theron gives a performance paradoxically larger-than-life and quiet, realistic, intimate. For example, the film eyes Wuornos as something of an eternal optimist. She still manages a smile and a “Hey, sugar!” in spite of an increasingly high body count. In this portrayal, Theron accomplishes what might seem impossible: she creates not only empathy for Wuornos, she actually makes you like this irascible, out-of-control, plain-spoken, shattered wreck of a person, or at least Theron did that for me. When Wuornos dresses up in a trashed, sky-blue blazer that has puffy shoulder pads (the garment looks as if it had been foraged from a Dumpster) and gamely tries her hand at job interviews, including one as a legal secretary, “to go straight and Christian and all,” the rejection she encounters rings true with terrifying, fateful accuracy. Swiftly, there became no choice—except to kill.
There’s been some misleading press about the violence depicted in Monster. In reality, this film is less violent than Cold Mountain. The rape scene in Monster is brutal and profoundly unsettling, yes. The subsequent shootings are handled with a great deal of restraint. Jenkins has taste: she harnesses the power of suggestion, an infinitely stronger maneuver than wallowing in gratuitous details.
Much of what gives Monster an incandescent appeal derives from the relationship between Wuornos and her lover Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). Selby, a short, closeted, sweetly myopic woman with a prominent forehead, meets a rain-drenched Wuornos in a gay bar, and slowly works her way past the prostitute’s cagey defensiveness. After they drink well beyond last call, Selby offers her new friend a place to spend the night. “May I touch your face?” Selby asks Aileen as the two women share a bed in the house of Selby’s deeply religious, salt-of-the-earth aunt and uncle. This tender first encounter is done lovingly and with dignity; there’s something gratifying in seeing these thrown-away, unglamorous women find each other.
Later, Aileen and Selby spend a Sunday afternoon at a roller skating rink. On discovering her friend’s profession, a star-struck Selby gasps, “Men must just line up to be with a girl like you!” The blasé Aileen takes this compliment in stride; she doesn’t burst Selby’s bubble with the truth about her rough trade clientele. In a sequence that ranks as one of the three or four best uses of celluloid this year, Aileen lures Selby, who doesn’t skate, onto the rink. Selby, with one arm in a cast, gimps along the perimeter as her pal ekes her on. The deejay spinning the tunes then calls out a slow dance “for couples only.” Selby starts to leave, and Aileen snags her. Finally, Aileen has met someone who thinks she’s beautiful; she takes Selby in her arms, and the soundtrack pulses with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” as they fall in love on the dance floor. The scene isn’t only a sterling example of two people taking a chance and getting their feet wet. Jenkins times the build-up to the first kiss to the crescendo of the music—it’s a paean to the hypnotic, seductive whirl of divine, cheap pop. (Journey’s Steve Perry, by the way, receives a credit as “musical consultant.”) If you were at all young in the 1980s and frequented skating rinks, then you may have seen such a scenario played out. But you’ve never seen it as movie art until now.
With so much acclaim for Theron (all of it well deserved), Ricci hasn’t yet received full recognition for her own transformation. This might be her best work since The Ice Storm. Her Selby is a believable portrait of a young woman’s struggle to come out to her family. Ricci lands exactly the right, authentic pitch in a scene where Selby confronts both her father, who snarls at her over the phone, and her aunt, who physically blocks her path. Selby defends her decision, suitcase in hand, as Aunt Donna tries to dissuade her from moving in with Aileen. When Selby eventually feels neglected by her lover, she takes off to a dyke bar and without missing a beat, fobs off Aileen’s wild anecdotes as her own. Ricci captures the woman’s yearning, her naïveté and vulnerability without a trace of condescension.
In small roles, Annie Corley, Bruce Dern, and Scott Wilson are no less than superb. Corley’s Southern-fried Aunt Donna could’ve easily been a cartoon, yet the actress reigns in any thought of excess. Donna says much about her choices when she lectures Selby, “Someday you’re gonna want a roof over your head, even if you have to sleep with a man to get it.” Dern, in three transitory passages, plays Thomas, a Vietnam vet who drinks at the same bar as Aileen, the Last Resort; he heartbreakingly conveys a sense of waste with minimal effects. Lastly, in Monster’s most inventive casting, Scott Wilson, who in 1967 played an unpitying killer in the Richard Brooks film of In Cold Blood, gives a brief, sympathetic performance as the last of the murdered johns. Wilson’s character pleads for his life, “You don’t have to do this,” in the only scene that comes close to condemning Wuornos’s actions.
In researching her screenplay, Jenkins had access to a trove of letters that Wuornos composed over her dozen years on death row. Much of Theron’s voice-over comes directly from those letters, and a more apt use of an often misused device I have not before heard. The voice-overs in Monster sound as if spoken by a long lost friend. Ultimately, Monster succeeds as a film for largely the same reason Shattered Glass does. Neither movie judges its corrupt protagonists. Both celebrate them. — NPT
January 4, 2004