- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Charlize Theron’s performance in “Monster,” as the executed serial-killer prostitute Aileen Wuornos, was doubtless one of the best of the year. The South African-born beauty vanished behind a cosmetic facade of skid-row grime, and her nervy acting more than matched the exterior makeover.

She deserves an Oscar nod and the industry respect that comes with it.

Writer-director Patty Jenkins deserves credit, too, for capturing the rawness of north-central Florida — the flat, endless drag of interstate blight, honky-tonks and fleabag motels. Also, I loved her humorous period details, such as how she used the windbag Journey ballad “Don’t Stop Believing” for a love scene.

“Monster” is as much a breakout for Miss Jenkins, who had only two undistinguished short films under her belt, as it was for Miss Theron.

But the film raises that age-old conflict between style and morality. As those who’ve seen “Monster” will know, it humanizes the Wuornos character, endowing her with a defiant antihero stance that I’d bet doesn’t sit well with her victims’ families, if they could muster the strength to sit through it.

In “Monster’s” perspective, it wasn’t anything endogenous that drove Aileen Wuornos to kill at least seven men — neither mental illness nor evil. (Wuornos herself, seeking to speed up her trip on death row, wrote the Florida Supreme Court, “I’m one who seriously hates human life and would kill again.”)

As a barfly friend of Wuornos in Miss Jenkins’ screenplay put it, it was “circumstances”: bad childhood (OK, a really bad childhood); the coarsening nature of a life spent hustling on the streets; brutalization at the hands of men, starting with her own father.

These factors are compelling, up to a point, but “Monster” goes even further down the road of tendentiousness.

Based on letters Wuornos wrote from prison to her lover Selby Wall (played in the movie by Christina Ricci), Miss Jenkins imagines the psychology of their love affair, with Selby envisioned as a sort of high-maintenance wife, which forces Wuornos into a humiliating search for a legitimate job.

Her first try is for secretarial work at a law firm. She has no college degree, no employable experience of any kind. Faced with this excruciatingly awkward and self-deluding job bid, any real-life human-resources type would be cringing with mingled guilt and embarrassment, right? Not in this movie’s contrived moral environment. Instead, a cocky and insensitive male interviewer takes malicious glee in turning her down.

Now, for a movie with pretensions to gritty hyperrealism, does it not strain pathos to play the system-is-stacked-against-me card with a proven serial killer? Wuornos would’ve been lucky even to get in the door of a law firm, let alone a real shot at clerical work. Yet her fury at being rejected is seen as somehow righteous. It implies that if society, and the men who run it, had just given Wuornos a chance, she wouldn’t have ended up killing johns on the interstate.

Selby’s fictional back story occupies its own repellent little corner of this movie. As Miss Jenkins imagines her, Selby was packed off to Florida from Ohio by a minister father who disapproved of her homosexual yearnings and so placed her in the care of friends Charles (Brett Rice) and Donna (Annie Corley). They are, of course, fundamentalist Christians.

Charles is quick to brandish his handgun at the sound of an intruder. Donna casually drops the “n” word. Selby’s guardians are bigoted homophobes, religious extremists with guns — got that?

It gets worse. Miss Corley’s Donna tries, to no avail, to dissuade Selby from consorting with Wuornos. “She’s a street person,” Donna says, “nothing but trouble. Don’t go down that path.” Some might call that a sensible attempt at mentoring. Nope, not here. It’s ignorance. Donna is a judgmental bluenose.

For Miss Jenkins, it wasn’t enough for her audience merely to sympathize with Wuornos. We have to dislike everyone who doesn’t.

“I didn’t want to make ‘The Burning Bed,’” Miss Jenkins told LA Weekly magazine. “I didn’t want to make a feminist-rage film, because that’s just dull, and untrue.”

“Monster” is most certainly a feminist-rage film. The question becomes whether that rage is justified. It’s true that Wuornos becomes steadily less sympathetic as she racks up victims in an increasingly cold-blooded fashion. Yet, throughout, Wuornos is as much a victim as she is a killer.

She is rhapsodized for her capacity for love and normality. If only someone could have plucked her from her “circumstances” …

Letha Prater, the sister of one of Wuornos’ victims, witnessed her execution in 2002. “I want to know and see with my own eyes that she is gone,” she said.

Aileen Wuornos is physically gone, but “Monster” — not only “Monster,” but a slew of documentary films, plus a San Francisco opera, as well — has made a legend of her. The creative attention paid to Wuornos has given her a mystique — the kind of thing that, unfortunately, can’t be extinguished with electricity or lethal injection.

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