"I'm depraved on account of I was deprived," chirps one of the gangstas to Officer Krupke in West Side Story. Nearly 50 years later, the depraved/deprived argument is still the first thing defense lawyers reach for -- so much so that it's become something of a cliché. How many times have movies hinged on the fact that that someone was abused as a child? Weren't we all abused as children, just not to the same degree? And does a broken childhood explain/excuse everything? Of course not, but anyone who works in the criminal justice system knows that the more time you spend with, say, a convicted murderer, the less monstrous he or she seems. Ultimately, they're like the rest of us, only more so. Or am I just a bleeding-heart liberal?
During parts of Monster, writer-director Patty Jenkins' attempt to see the world from the perspective of Aileen Wuornos, a Florida prostitute who was put to death in 2002 for murdering six of her johns, I thought my heart was bleeding, so painful is it to watch this woman dig herself into a hole that becomes a grave. So much attention has been lavished on Charlize Theron for having physically transformed herself from a model/actress into a hooker/serial killer that the movie itself has had to settle for second billing. That's a pity, because Monster is nothing short of a masterpiece -- a low-rent love story that just keeps expanding and expanding in our minds until it seems to have captured what it means to be cast out of American society, like a leper.
When the movie opens, Aileen is crouching under a highway overpass, contemplating suicide. Only the five bucks in her pocket -- payment for a blow job -- prevents her from doing so. If she doesn't spend it, Aileen figures, she will have done the blow job for free, and that's an even more painful thought than continuing to live. A little bit of black humor there, but notice how Jenkins has already taken us inside Aileen's head; the argument makes sense to us, too. Dropping into what turns out to be a gay bar, Aileen orders a beer and winds up with a girlfriend. Christina Ricci's Selby is a sweet young thing, fresh off the bus from somewhere, and Aileen, who seems to have had no idea up to this point that she's a lesbian, falls head over heels in love.
They're not exactly a glamorous couple. Selby has a cast on her arm, and Aileen...well, Aileen's spent some time in the sun. Her face is blotchy with freckles, and her hair, which she keeps out of her eyes by tossing her head backwards, is a ratty mess. Those of us who've seen Nick Broomfield's 1992 documentary Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, where the real Aileen struts her stuff in her orange prison fatigues, know just how close Theron has come, physically. But her real accomplishment is in finding the hurt little girl inside Aileen's crazy-woman ferocity -- finding it and doling it out one carefully measured ounce at a time. That we still care for Aileen after everything she puts us through is a tribute to Theron's Oscar-worthy performance.
For Aileen, Selby's affection is like a sip of water after a lifetime of crawling through the desert. She even tries to go legit, find a regular job, but she doesn't have any skills, any experience outside of hooking. So she hits the streets again, determined to be a good provider. Set in a part of Florida that never makes it into the travel brochures, Monster displays an artful lack of artistry, allowing the dingy motel rooms to speak for themselves. The land itself seems parched, left out in the sun too long, and the dirt roads that Aileen directs her customers down seem like nice places for dumping bodies. Which is why she may not be all that surprised when a john who seemed okay now seems intent on dumping hers there, after he's through with it.
At different times, the real Aileen said she'd committed all the murders in self-defense and said she'd committed none of them in self-defense, but the story she stuck with the longest was that she'd committed only the first one in self-defense. That's the version Jenkins went with, and the sequence is so beautifully handled, with wariness giving way to fear giving way to despair giving way to rage, that we're prepared to go pretty far down the road with Aileen. She doesn't turn herself in. On the contrary, she steals the guy's car and wallet, showering Selby with cash. But something has changed inside Aileen. A screw has come loose, and it's not like the rest of the screws didn't need a little tightening. Just when her love life is coming together, Aileen falls apart.
Thus begins her murder spree, a series of shootings that landed the real Aileen in the headlines as "the first female serial killer." That's far from the truth, but who cares about truth in the midst of a media frenzy? Why not just call her an animal and stick her in a cage? We'll never know exactly what motivated Aileen to start killing her johns. Rage? Greed? Love? And in the absence of that knowledge, Jenkins has carved out her own explanation, one that seems true to Aileen's life. Abandoned by her mother, beaten by her father, sexually abused and then kicked out of the house for giving birth at age 13, Aileen spent the rest of her life trading sex for food and shelter. And when the johns upped the ante, so did she, tit for tat, an eye for an eye.
Actually, it's much more complicated than that, and the wonderful thing about Monster is that we both can't sort everything out and don't feel like we have to. We're prepared to live with Aileen's contradictions, which take us to a deep, dark place where killing someone in cold blood seems like an act of survival. Jenkins has shaped the murders into an obstacle course of moral reckoning, each one harder to justify than the one before. Finally, a kindly old man who only picked her up because he thought she needed help begs for his life, handing over his wallet and the keys to his car. What happens next seems so wrong, so unjust, yet so necessary, so inevitable, that we know we're experiencing a great work of art.
Although this is her first feature film, Jenkins shows an uncanny feel for the highways and byways of America the Not-So-Beautiful. The dialogue's so plain and earthy as to suggest she hung out in biker bars, transcribing every syllable. And the acting's so pitch-perfect, right down to the tiniest role, that you realize Jenkins knows, in her bones, where Aileen was coming from. Only Ricci's Selby, at first glance, seems a little off -- too fine-featured and delicate to fall for a Mack truck like Aileen. But such match-ups do happen sometimes, and Ricci and Theron's initial scene together is a master class in the push/pull of budding romance, Ricci pulling ever so gently until Theron erupts, spewing the contents of her spleen.
Who knew that Theron had such fierceness in her? She's been effective before, usually as the wife or the girlfriend. But Monster suggests that she has hidden depths of sadness and madness to draw on. It's tempting to point to the fact that her own mother shot and killed her father in self-defense while the 15-year-old Theron looked on. But who cares where the depths came from? The important thing is that Theron has used her own pain and suffering to probe the depths of a woman who'd been dismissed as a psycho bitch, a monster. When I first read that Theron had gained 30 pounds, shaved her eyebrows, discolored her teeth and endured the daily ministrations of makeup artist Toni G., I thought, "Why not just hire a different actress?" Now I know.