Director: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci
Almost 15 years before Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins wrote and directed Monster in 2003. The film found critical and commercial acclaim and Charlize Theron won best actress at that year’s Oscars (alongside an enormous list of awards for Theron and the film). Jenkins’ adapted the true story of Aileen Wuornos, a serial killer from the late 80s/early 90s. There’s some dramatic embellishment, which is to be expected from any film based on a true story and it should be noted that some people who knew Wuornos in real life have criticised it for making her too sympathetic and painting her victims as villains. That aside, Patty Jenkins created one of the most compelling and horrific stories that show how society fails people and how circumstances can make people do horrendous things.
Monster tells the story of Wuornos (Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road, Prometheus) in a linear fashion, starting just before she meets the semi-fictional Selby (Chrstina Ricci, The Adams Family, Sleep Hollow). The backstory is told mostly through voice overs while the events play out in front of us, letting us see the main events while listening to what lead up to it (there is a prequel due out later this year that is going to go into the early life of Wuornos, not that it’s needed in anyway). Through this we are shown the tragic story of how life didn’t give Wuornos a chance. She was forced into prostitution to live from an early age and when she does try to leave that life behind, those who can offer he help, don’t. She’s turned down from jobs as if she’s worthless, the police abuse their power and eventually she turns back to a life she would never be able to leave behind.
The narrative is compelling and well crafted, there isn’t one moment that feels unnecessary or slow. Patty Jenkins turns a serial killer into an understandable and sympathetic character, who you want to root for even though you know she is capable of murder and doesn’t shy away from it. Her relationship with Shelby is sweet and affectionately shown, especially at the beginning. Neither has had a good life, Shelby is from a Christian family who believe she has ‘chosen a gay life’. You want them to run away together and at one point this feels like it could turn into a pure love story. Reality quickly dashes that away and darkness fills their lives.
The visuals in this film are bleak and downbeat. Everything is well designed, from the muted colours that fill every scene to the mould growing on the ceiling in their apartment. It’s oppressive and foreboding. Just from looking at any frame from this film, you can tell this isn’t going to have a happy ending. It’s a dark film that uses it’s muted colours to emphasise the tragedy that you’re watching.
The performances are simply breath-taking. Well respected film critic Roger Egbert said that Theron’s performance is one of the best in the history of cinema, and there isn’t a better way to describe it. Through a nuanced and very specific performance she brings so much sympathy and relatability to Wuornos. She commands the screen, and you can feel the weight of her past and actions in every moment. Ricci is also fantastic as the very naïve and unsure Selby. She feels like someone who has spent so long trying to be someone she’s not, that she’s forgotten who she really is. There is one scene where she goes to a bar alone, only to take over her partner’s personality telling the story of the failed job interview that Wuornos had earlier in the film. Her performance is full of uncertainty. The scene towards the beginning at the roller skating arena, is powerful and heart breaking, you want them to succeed and have a happy life so much, but you know what’s coming. Even if you don’t know the story before you watch it, you can tell through the visuals and opening sequences that they aren’t going to get the fairy-tale ending.
While it may embellish the truth, Monster effectively shows how a troubled person can be lead down a path that gives no forgiveness. It’s a heart breaking, depressing tale of love, death and alienation. Monster received a lot of praise when it came out and it couldn’t be more deserving of it. This is a powerful story that is presented masterfully by one of the best directors of our time and a career defining performance from Theron.