3 stars (out of 4)
We often celebrate actors for putting themselves inside the skins and souls of others. But in "Monster," a true-crime drama about Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Charlize Theron performs one of the most shocking physical/emotional transformations in recent years. She becomes the monster of the title so fully and convincingly that she truly seems to disappear into the role.
In what has already been justly hailed as an Oscar-caliber performance, Theron, the tall bombshell of "The Cider House Rules," has bulked up her body, mottled her flesh and fitted herself with dental prosthetics to turn herself into a startling approximation of Wuornos, a prostitute who was convicted in 1992 of murdering seven of her johns and was eventually executed.
"Monster" follows Wuornos from the beginning of her crime spree to her final trial, and the Theron's transformation is uncanny, especially if you've seen the real Wuornos in Nick Broomfield's 1992 documentary "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer." Like Robert De Niro did for "Raging Bull," Theron got into her character by packing on extra pounds. So thoroughly does the star deglamorize herself that she's hard to recognize at first, not only because of her thickened body and coarsened face, but also because of that short-fuse attitude -- a mix of despair, desire, rage and desperation that holds you like a vise.
Theron makes us understand Wuornos, a woman whose sexually abusive childhood, harsh life and sometimes-violent clients helped streamline her path to murder. And because of that understanding, the actress elicits sympathy for a character who, however much we may empathize with her rotten life and breaks, has by the end become as vicious as her abusers, killing the guiltless as well as the violent.
Both Theron and co-star Christina Ricci, as Wuornos' lesbian girlfriend Selby Wall (a fictionalized version of Wuornos' real-life companion, Tyria Moore), mine surprising emotion from their relationship. They handle this affair with such empathy that what could have degenerated into a sordid freak show becomes scary and poignant.
I don't think it's a great movie -- though Theron's is a near-great performance -- but it's not one you can easily forget. Patty Jenkins, the gifted new writer-director making her feature debut here, treats Wuornos' crime spree as a tragic love story, and though that sounds like a dubious interpretation, the actresses mostly make it work.
Their movie seethes with twisted romanticism and wounded love, especially when a hostile Aileen, sick of her hooker's life, meets the gentler Selby at a gay bar and eventually talks her into fleeing her straight-laced life and family.
When the first murder occurs, Jenkins treats it as self-defense; Aileen lashes back after sadistic client Vincent (Lee Tergesen) ties and beats her. But soon she is killing more for revenge than self-defense, and even more for money to keep Selby. Progressively, her victims or near-victims get more innocent: a white-haired cop; a nervous, gentle first-timer (Pruitt Taylor Vince); and finally a benevolent family man just trying to help her out (Scott Wilson, who played a famous real-life killer himself, Dick Hickock, in the 1967 "In Cold Blood").
But because Jenkins and Theron show Aileen succumbing to the drug-like power trip of murder, motivated by her adoration for Selby, our sympathies can be engaged, especially when the killer's remorse grows.
Though Jenkins' movie becomes a love-on-the-run thriller, like "Bonnie and Clyde" or "Badlands," it lacks the visual lyricism or complex edginess of either of those films. Instead, it's a compassionate movie about a dark-hearted subject. Perhaps what it really needs is more ruthlessness mixed with its empathy.
Jenkins carefully re-creates '80s Daytona Beach, Fla., with its biker bars, cheap motels and bland houses, but "Monster" doesn't really feel all that lifelike. It keeps making self-conscious nods to the movie past. When Bruce Dern shows up as one of Aileen's few friends, Vietnam vet Thomas, he recalls the '60s Roger Corman crime and biker movies in which Dern made an early mark. (That touch isn't bad, though -- Jenkins' self-aware romantic kitsch, and her fondness for the more astringent movies of the '60s and '70s, are part of what makes "Monster" work well.)Most of the impact, however, comes from Theron, playing a human nightmare and an actress' dream. Sometimes her characterization becomes slightly forced, but it's still a blistering portrayal of love, fury and evil. Digging deep down, Theron and the movie give us empty lives, desperate romance and murderous rage. They bring a monster to life.
Directed and written by Patty Jenkins; photographed by Steven Bernstein; edited by Jane Kurson, Arthur Coburn; production designed by Edward T. McAvoy; music by BT; produced by Charlize Theron, Mark Damon, Clark Peterson, Donald Kushner, Brad Wyman. A Newmarket Films release; opens Friday, Jan. 9. Running time: 1:49. MPAA Rating: R (strong violence, sexual content and pervasive language).
Aileen Wuornos -- Charlize Theron
Selby Wall -- Christina Ricci
Thomas -- Bruce Dern
Horton -- Scott Wilson
Gene -- Pruitt Taylor Vince
Vincent Corey -- Lee Tergesen
Donna Tentler -- Annie Corley