Charlize Theron: glamor girl or devil’s advocate?

By Nicholas Baer

To call someone a monster is to dehumanize him, to label him a one-dimensional embodiment of evil. What makes Patty Jenkins’s film Monster so remarkable is that it does for its real-life subject, Aileen Wuornos, the exact opposite of what its title does: it humanizes a woman whom most would dismiss. With almost unbelievable devotion, Jenkins empathizes with her subject, finding humanity and sympathy for this prostitute who killed many of her clients. Her film convincingly immerses the viewer in the psyche of a serial killer—no small feat. Jenkins is not exploiting her subject for the sake of drama here; she is seeking to find a method to the madness of a real woman. In doing so, she forces her audience to find a common ground with the subject.

From the start, the film is subjective, with a voice-over narration by Wuornos stating, “I always wanted to be in the movies.” Voice-over narration is usually a cheap device in films used to tell instead of show information—a device for those who cannot make full use of the visual medium. However, in this film, the voice-over serves a clear, justifiable purpose: to establish in the first frame from whose perspective the story is being told.

No distance exists between the audience and the characters in this film. Jenkins and the film’s actors very humbly submerge themselves in the story, careful not to condescend to the characters or deny the intensity of the love between Wuornos and her lover, Selby.

Jenkins forms her film not as an exposé or as a police investigation thriller, but rather as a character study of Wuornos and the circumstances that led her to kill. Wuornos is a fully developed character, and we see both her descent into prostitution and why she eventually began to kill some of her clients. A prostitute since age 13, Wuornos had always been in the service of men, dependent on their sexual requests for her financial survival.

The relationship between Aileen and Selby—whom she meets at a gay bar—is wonderfully established and wholly convincing. Even though Aileen does not identify herself as a lesbian, the implication is that she finds someone equally lonely and desperate in Selby. Both Aileen and Selby have been abused and scarred (both figuratively and literally) by men, and their relationship is less sexually driven than founded upon a desire to find refuge from their patriarchal society.

Much of this film’s subtext is about power dynamics, serving to indict the society in which Aileen exists. Aileen is objectified and scorned by a misogynistic society in which women are in full service to me whether the women are prostitutes, housewives, or secretaries. What is notable about the relationship between Aileen and Selby is that clear gender roles are developed; Aileen fulfills the male role, working to bring home money and promising a better life to the younger and more naïve Selby. This film contains the most interesting subversion of gender roles since Kimberly Peirce’s (AB ’90) Boys Don’t Cry.

A comparison to that 1999 film, also based on a true story, has many purposes: in addition to depicting female same-sex relationships, both films explore themes about the constraints of middle America, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s (the period in which both are set). The love stories in both films are based on the characters’ romantic desires to escape from their oppressive societies.

In Monster, Jenkins employs many tracking shots from the windows of moving cars, clearly establishing the small-town Florida locale from which Aileen and Selby are trying to escape. One of the film’s most incredible scenes occurs in Fun World, an amusement park Aileen and Selby visit to escape their problems. A low-angle shot of a Ferris wheel against a dark night sky symbolizes the futile American desire for upward mobility. Aileen has never before been on a Ferris wheel, and as she rides it for the first time with Selby, the two find the type of ascension that could never be actualized amid America’s false myths of social mobility.

And yet Jenkins’ film is not political in nature; the aim of the film is neither to politicize nor to shock, but rather to humanize. Jenkins does not exploit her subject to devastate the audience, as Larry Clark does in his films about troubled American youth. And unlike Gus van Sant’s direction of Elephant (2003’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes), Jenkins does not call attention to her own artistry as a director. She wisely minimizes the distance between the audience and her characters.

Similarly, the actors do not call attention to themselves in the slightest degree. The acting in this film is simply outstanding, serving the film’s polemic, which is to totally and intimately immerse the viewer in Aileen’s world. Charlize Theron has a showy role as Aileen, yet her performance is truly remarkable not for its physical transformation but in its respect for the character. We are not constantly conscious that it is Theron we are watching onscreen. Christina Ricci, just as good in a less showy role, embodies Selby; her wide eyes emphasize the character’s naïveté. Her role in this film is essential, as she provides an element of sanity lacking in Aileen; without her presence, the audience would quickly become alienated from the title subject.

A point does exist in the film when we begin to notice elements of Aileen’s madness, and yet, our ability to empathize with her from start to finish is the film’s true accomplishment. All elements of the film are in service to empathy, and the result is unforgettable. In an age when the American president uses words and phrases such as “evil-doers” and “axis of evil,” it is refreshing to witness a film that does anything but label.