by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2004, 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I went to a film screening in Hillcrest of the movie Monster, writer-director Patty Jenkins’ heavily fictionalized version of the Aileen Wuornos story. It’s the sort of movie that overwhelms you without actually leaving you able to say you liked it; between Charlize Theron’s rivetingly unattractive presence as Wuornos (one wonders why her middle-aged male victims were so hard up for sex that they actually were willing to pay money to fuck her) and Jenkins’ alteration of her female partner into a pathetically immature child-woman (played nobly by Christina Ricci) — a characterization which reminded me very much of Teresa Wright’s role in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (also a film about a young suburban girl who discovers that the person she thinks is going to lift her from the doldrums of her existence and her suffocating family turns out to be a multiple murderer!) even though the rest of the film is essentially an all-female Bonnie and Clyde — Bonnie and Claudia, as it were — Monster is a compelling but also resolutely unlikable movie which pushes its attempt to earn audience sympathy for Wuornos to the breaking point. It’s the sort of movie that drives a reviewer nuts because you want to acknowledge the filmmakers’ accomplishment but you also don’t want to promise your readers that they’ll have a good time if they see it! — 1/9/04
Monster: Intense but Unlikable Spree-Killer Story
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Originally published in Zenger’s Newsmagazine issue #115, January 2004
The blurbs in the ads for writer-director Patty Jenkins’ film Monster include words like “Remarkable!,” “Raw and Riveting,” “Unforgettable!,” “Astonishing!” What you won’t find are words like “likable,” “entertaining,” “emotionally moving,” “wonderful” — words that really don’t apply to a film that frustrates a reviewer because it’s so obviously well-made, and so intensely carries the thrust of the filmmakers’ convictions in every frame, you want to recommend it. And yet you also can’t honestly tell your readers that they’d actually enjoy this film.
Though the actual meaning of the title refers to a giant Ferris wheel that frightened the protagonist as a kid, Monster is also a fitting name for its central character: Aileen Wuornos, the real-life murderess who blazed a bloody trail across Florida in 1990-91. A prostitute of one sort or another since the age of nine, Wuornos picked up seven men, ostensibly to sell them sex, and killed them. When she was finally captured, her defense was that the men had attacked her and she had killed them in self-defense — and years after her arrest in 1991, but before the state of Florida put her to death in 2002, it turned out that at least for her first victim, that had been true. He’d had a record of assaulting, raping and brutalizing prostitutes, and Wuornos’s claim that she’d had to fight him off and kill him to save her own life rang true. But the incident seemed to have finally stripped the already well-worn gears in her brain and led her to re-enact the crime with male after male she picked up on Florida’s back roads.
What made Aileen Wuornos’s story a media sensation was not only that she was proclaimed the world’s first female serial killer — which she wasn’t; as a prostitute with no record of violent crime until her first killing, she was strictly speaking a spree killer (like Andrew Cunanan), not a serial — but she was also having a sexual affair with a woman, Tyria “Ty” Moore, a bike-riding butch dyke who frequented the Lesbian bars in Daytona Beach and, though not a criminal, was almost as hard-bitten as her partner. The police caught Wuornos by staking out the low-class trucker bar at which the pair liked to hang out, then sought Ty’s cooperation by having her call Wuornos in jail and trying to trick her into a telephonic confession. Eventually Wuornos pled guilty to save Ty from prosecution — and then suffered the indignity of seeing Ty as the prosecution’s star witness in her trial.
The irresistible combination of tabloid-friendly news hooks in the Wuornos story — a female mass murderer! A prostitute! A Lesbian! — has led to an extensive literature on the case as well as no fewer than four films. One was a made-for-TV “quickie” from the early 1990’s called Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story, which focused on the police work that cracked the case. One was a 1992 documentary by Nick Broomfield (Biggie and Tupac) called Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, which featured interviews with Wuornos but also made the media frenzy around Wuornos its subject. The third, released almost simultaneously with Monster, was another documentary by Broomfield, this time co-directed with his producing partner Joan Churchill, Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer — inspired largely by Broomfield’s supremely mixed feelings about being subpoenaed by the state of Florida during Wuornos’s last court hearings to bolster the case for executing her instead of letting her live out her life in prison.
Monster is essentially a tour de force for Charlize Theron, who played Wuornos as well as co-producing the film (it’s nice to see more actresses actually developing their own projects instead of sitting on their asses lamenting the studio system’s failure to generate any good roles for women). It was written and directed by Patty Jenkins, who wrote an article in Landmark Theatres’ house magazine FLM saying that she’d long had an interest in making “a Raging Bull-style character film about Aileen Wuornos.” Under Jenkins’ direction and the ministrations of a makeup artist credited only as “Toni G.,” the naturally attractive Theron was converted into a repulsively hard-edged homeless street hooker, complete with sunburned face, droopy eyelids and teeth caps. Her performance is indeed “riveting,” to quote one of those sensational adjectives used in the ad blurbs, but it’s also physically difficult to watch. The utter conviction with which Theron turns herself into a piece of human flotsam only deepens one of the mysteries of the Wuornos case — namely, why were the middle-aged men she killed so hard up that they were willing to pay for sex with someone so relentlessly unattractive.
Though Monster is being billed as a true story, it really isn’t — something Jenkins finally gets around to admitting at the end in a credit-roll disclaimer that says that Wuornos is the only character in the film who isn’t fictional. Like the 1970’s biopics of Billie Holiday and Buddy Holly, which turned these musicians’ fascinating real lives into Hollywood clichés, Monster is not only not especially interesting as fiction but leaves one with the impression that if its maker had stuck to the real story she would have had a much richer, deeper and better film. Nothing in Monster is further from the truth than its depiction of Wuornos’s girlfriend and their relationship. The hard-edged biker-dyke the real Wuornos fell for becomes “Selby Wall” (Christina Ricci), a teenage Lesbianette whose big concern is to avoid having the family friends she’s staying with in Florida ship her back to her parents in Hawai’i, where daddy is just waiting to clap her into a reparative therapy center in the hope of turning her straight.
Much of Monster plays like someone got the idea to redo Bonnie and Clyde with an all-female cast — Bonnie and Claudia, as it were — but as false as it is to the real sinew of Wuornos’s story, in some ways the character arc of “Selby Wall” is the most interesting part of this film. It’s strikingly reminiscent of the character Teresa Wright played in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 classic, Shadow of a Doubt — also a film about an immature young woman who has to grow up in a hurry when she realizes that the person she hoped would lift her out of her drab suburban existence is in fact a multiple murderer — and though Ricci is hardly in Wright’s league as an actress (nor is Jenkins in Hitchcock’s as a director), nonetheless she gives the film a moral center it desperately needs and her story has a genuine pathos that Wuornos’s, as Jenkins tells it, largely lacks. — 1/11/04
The film was Monster, the 2003 release very loosely based on the life of Aileen Wuornos, a hard-bitten homeless woman in Florida who worked as a highway prostitute (picking up men as they drove by on the freeway and getting them to stop) and ultimately killed seven of her would-be johns between 1989 and 1990, finally being arrested at a bar appropriately called “The Last Resort” (the real bar “played” itself on film). It was written and directed by Patty Jenkins, though the Wuornos story had already been the subject of two documentaries and a true-crime book that was adapted into a TV-movie with Jean Smart as Wuornos. Jenkins actually used only the basic situation for her script — Wuornos had a girlfriend when she was captured, though it’s unclear whether she was Lesbian (in the movie she’s never had sex with a woman before she and her girlfriend meet), Bisexual or just living the stereotype of the prostitute who has sex for pleasure with the gender other than the one with which he or she has sex for money. (I read this theory in a 1970’s book that argued that most female prostitutes were Lesbian and most male prostitutes were straight.)
The Wuornos story fascinated criminologists and true-crime buffs because until her case broke the conventional wisdom in criminology was that women were psychologically incapable of being serial killers on their own (though a woman could conceivably assist a male serial killer with whom she was romantically or sexually involved). I saw the movie when it was initially released (my journal entry on it is dated January 9, 2004) at a press screening at Landmark Hillcrest and actually reviewed it for Zenger’s, and though this time around on DVD it didn’t seem quite as overwhelming as it had in a theatre when it was brand-new, it’s still a remarkable film and in particular a tour de force for its two leading actresses, Charlize Theron as Wuornos (she won an Academy Award for Best Actress) and Christina Ricci as her girlfriend Selby (her real name was Tyria Moore, but Patty Jenkins changed all the names of the characters, except Wuornos herself, for her film).
When I reviewed it initially I drew a comparison between it and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt — also a story about an innocent young woman who’s bored with her family and her home life, who attaches herself to a dashing stranger who comes in from outside and turns out to be a serial killer — though Jenkins didn’t make the two characters virtually doppelgangers of each other the way Hitchcock and his writer, Thornton Wilder, did. Instead she seemed to relish the differences between them and the sheer unlikeliness of their pairing — Wuornos a hard-bitten rambler who (according to her Wikipedia page) had been having sex for money and other material rewards since she was 12 and who was simply used to the idea of trading her body to survive since it was the only salable commodity she had; Selby a product of a broken but still churchgoing and God-fearing family who had somehow come aware of her own Queer orientation and was hanging out in a bi-gender Gay bar (I guess we’re supposed to assume that Daytona Beach, Florida, where most of the film takes place — and where my husband Charles lived during part of his childhood — was too small to have a separate Lesbian bar) when Aileen breezed in with $5 from her latest trick and a thirst for a beer.
Ironically, according to imdb.com both actresses put on weight for their roles — Charlize Theron gained 30 pounds (though she still looks considerably scrawnier than the real Wuornos — indeed one of the most bizarre aspects of the case was that there were men out there driving the Florida roads who were so hard up for a live body to stick their dicks into that they were willing to pay money to have sex with someone who looked so ragged and downright ugly) and Christina Ricci (who deserved an acting award as much as her co-star did — whatever happened to her? She’s worked steadily since but the only subsequent credits whose titles I recognize are Black Snake Moan, another story about sexual obsession, and Speed Racer) added 10 pounds — and the most formidable aspect of the film, and what makes it watchable, is the awesome chemistry between Theron and Ricci.
You really believe these two unlikely people have hooked up and formed such a fierce and energetic bond it can overcome everything from their constant arguments (mostly over Selby driving the cars Wuornos has stolen from her victims and Wuornos worrying that she’ll be seen in one of the cars and it will lead the police to them) to the murders (Ricci’s portrayal of the complex emotions her character must be feeling as she learns the woman she regards as her savior from a dull “normal” existence is killing people and justifying it as self-defense) — though Jenkins’ film loses something from leaving out the detail that when Wuornos was finally arrested, her main priority in talking to the police was to make sure they understood her girlfriend had nothing to do with the killings. (She didn’t know at the time that Tyria, a.k.a. “Selby,” had been instrumental in her arrest — she had placed phone calls on a line the police were tapping under instructions from them to get Wuornos to make an admission they could use to get an arrest warrant — and she certainly couldn’t have anticipated that her girlfriend would be the key witness against her at her trial, dramatized cruelly and effectively by Jenkins with one shot of Ricci on the witness stand, decisively pointing out Wuornos at the defense table as the person she’s been testifying about: Jenkins puts the point across with one simple hand gesture from Ricci and not a word of dialogue!)
As I recall (I haven’t seen it in years), the TV-movie Overkill paid a lot more attention to the role of the police in the case, and in particular made it clear that the cops had been staking out the Last Resort bar for days before they finally arrested Wuornos (they sent two undercover cops in biker drag into the bar to get close to Wuornos and make the arrest — and in Jenkins’ film it’s an out-of-the-blue surprise when the guys Wuornos is cruising as either her next potential johns or her next potential victims turn out to be the cops that arrest her), whereas Jenkins’ focus was far more on Wuornos herself and the history that had so totally screwed her up that she started lashing out against her johns and killing them.
Ironically, the killing for which she was convicted and sentenced to death (she was executed on October 9, 2002) — her first, of 50-year-old electronics store owner Richard Mallory in Clearwater — is now largely believed to have been legitimate self-defense; he already had a record of rape convictions and was apparently fond of picking up prostitutes, binding and gagging them, and then helping himself to freebies, and people who knew him thought it was only a matter of time before this got him into trouble. Psychologically, Mallory’s assault and her self-defense killing of him seem to have set her off and taken the brakes off her inhibitions so she was capable of killing the other six (in one of the film’s most chilling sequences she offs a man who had no interest in her sexually and had just picked her up to offer her a ride and some help). Though Monster might have been an even richer movie than it is if Jenkins had used more of the real story, as it stands it’s still pretty chilling, hardly the sort of movie you can recommend to someone who wants a good time but vividly written and staged, with Wuornos emerging, if not as a sympathetic figure, at least a comprehensible one. — 9/3/11