Charlize Theron's astonishing performance as a real life serial killer targeting over half a dozen sexually abusive men enhances the grimness and morbidity of Monster, a relentlessly depressing film. Yet, serious minded fans may not want to miss it.
It easily finds top place in my list of all-time depressing films, including Leaving Las Vegas and The Stranger, based on Albert Camus's novel.
Theron, 27, looks radically different from the image we have of her from her most popular film, The Italian Job. The actress gained weight to make her role look more authentic. The role demands her to look older as the film concentrates on Aileen Wuornos, the serial killer when she was about 34. She was executed at age 46 in Florida in 2002 for the murder of six men.
Having acted in more than 20 films in the past decade, Theron is better known for her role as a troubled young woman in the Oscar-nominated The Cider House Rules.
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In three weeks of limited run, it has grossed encouraging $560,000 in 14 theatres. The real test will come in the coming weeks as it expands to more than 100 theatres.
A documentary Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer is also being shown in New York and a handful of cities. Though it has no riveting performance as in the fictionalised film, Aileen is a far more engrossing film with serious insights. Though it too is grim and disturbing, it has many a plot twist worthy of a finely honed novel of Ruth Rendell.
The movie, Monster, too is based on the exploits of Aileen Wuornos, America's first female serial killer (a rarity, for most serial killers are white men). It is directed by first-timer Patty Jenkins who offers a harrowing portrait of a continually abused Aileen who slowly turns into anti-hero. It also deals with her attempt to find peace through a relationship with another woman (Christina Ricci).
But while Jenkins narration makes us gasp at the horror one woman has to endure, it fails to take us deep into her soul. It does not, perhaps intentionally, make us feel for her. Jenkins also scripted the film, yet another first.
Jenkins looks into one year in Aileen's life when she hitchhiked in Florida and killed seven clients when they allegedly tried to rape her or harm her in other ways.
Just as the killing began, Aileen met Selby Wall (Ricci), a sort of misfit, and the two began living together after falling in love. But when Aileen tries to make herself useful by way of a job, she finds it difficult to get one because she has no resume or references. She returns to prostitution and kills a John who turns violent. For some time, she manages to pay her bills because of the money she has stolen from him. When the money runs out, she is back to robbing and killing more Johns.
Jenkins does not really make us understand the agony Aileen went through and how rape, incest and other kinds of abuse turned her into a monster.
While Theron's overwhelming performance dominates the film, Ricci as her demanding lover also holds attention.
For more information about Aileen Wuornos, one has to turn to two documentaries made by Nick Broomfield in 2002 and 2003 in which he examines with understanding and sympathy the brutality she had to endure in her family and from her many lovers.
London-based Broomfield interviewed Wuornos many times during her legal process. His previous documentary scolded Aileen's family and media for trivialising her life for the sake of money.
But while making the second documentary, he had a horrible surprise. Aileen, who had always asserted that she had killed the seven men in self-defence, suddenly tells the authorities that she had indeed killed in cold blood. She was in the "robbery business," she also declares to Broomfield.
And then she announces she wants to be executed as soon as possible. We learn later that Aileen changed her story because she was tired of being on death row.
If Jenkins had only offered half of the twists and surprises in Broomfield's documentary.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Scott Wilson, Annie Corley and Taylor Vince
Writer-director: Patty Jenkins
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Rating: R for violence, sexual content and language
Distributor: Newmarket Films