by Collin Souter
Seeing a movie more than once can sometimes be a bad idea. If you have a fond memory, or at the very least, a decent one that others put into question, you should probably just leave it at that and move on. I could not really do that in the case of “Monster.” I saw it once a few weeks ago and thought it to be a wonderfully acted portrayal of two women at a point in their lives when they finally had a clear view of their world and how to survive it and how their past dictates that mode of survival. I still agree with the second part. The “wonderfully acted” part has recently—upon second viewing, mind you—come into question.Why did I go back a second time? To write a fair review, for one thing. I had seen at least a dozen movies since my first viewing of “Monster” and thought it would be fair to view it once again. Also, two prominent film critics here in Chicago have had severely polarized reactions to Charlize Theron’s performance. One calls it “one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.” The other claims it to be one of the most poorly calculated, unnatural and forced performances of all time. Upon first viewing, I thought Theron’s performance was fierce and worthy of award considerations.
"A series of 'Oscar clips,' but not in a good way"
I should back up a bit. I have never been a fan of Theron’s. To me, she has always been something of a void. She has never really stood out in a movie. She has always been there to fill a hole, but even when there I still see a hole that needs filling. She exudes sheer blandness and fills me with nothing but inertia. I look at the screen and I think, “Yes, that’s a woman and her name is Charlize Theron. Pass the poppers, please. Thank you. I’m going to the restroom. Do you need anything? Yes, that’s Charlize Theron.”
Along came “Monster” and, low and behold, she kept me watching her, paying attention to her, something I have never been able to do before. It might be because it looks nothing like her. For the role of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Theron packed on 40 pounds and had a make-up job to make herself look unattractive and unkempt. This is usually the mark of an actor who wants to put on a show for us rather than a performance and now that I have viewed the film a second time, the show has turned into a distraction, one that cannot be denied.
It is neither one of the greatest nor one of the worst performances I’ve seen. At its best, Theron exudes the sheer torment of what it must be like to be Aileen, a woman who has grown up around nothing but abuse from her family and every boy at school. Now an adult, Aileen earns money by turning tricks for any sorry sack looking for a quickie in a station wagon. The movie starts with a tiny picture of Aileen as a child as Theron narrates about always wanting to be in the movies and, as a child, living in a fantasy world when life got too rough. As we see the truth unfold—the abuse—the picture gets bigger and bigger until we see Aileen as an adult living on the streets.
One night in a gay bar (though she insists she’s not gay), Aileen meets Selby (Christina Ricci), a loner who hits on her. Eventually, Aileen goes home with Selby and the two form a friendship that eventually turns to love. One night, Aileen decides to turn a few tricks to make some extra cash, but a trick soon turns into a rape, which, of course, turns into a murder, that of Aileen murdering her client/rapist. Without telling Selby about the murder, Aileen persuades Selby to move out of her relatives' home in which she has been staying. The two end up living together at a motel unsure of what their next move will be. That would be your cue to shout, “Like ‘Thelma & Louise,’ right?”
Right, I guess, except that there exists a higher body count. In order to survive, Aileen continues to meet men, drive out to the middle of nowhere, rob them and kill them, unbeknownst to Selby, who waits around the motel wondering how to survive on so little money. Eventually, it comes out that murders have been taking place in order to ensure their survival together. Aileen tries to go straight by applying for jobs as a secretary, but that goes predictably nowhere.
“Monster”—based on a true story and a decent debut from director Patty Jenkins—seems to be trying the sympathetic approach to its subjects. In the end, it is about how the past dictates one’s survival instincts. Aileen learns about prostitution at an early age as a mode of survival. She looks back on it and finds that she has been doomed to this life all along. Selby has been disowned by her family after they learned that she tried to kiss a girl. She survives by letting people tell her what to do. She goes to church with her adoptive family because they persuade her to. She falls under the spell of Aileen because Aileen possesses those same powers of persuasion. Unable to think for herself in most situations, Selby has never really grown up.
As Selby, Ricci has been well cast simply because we have watched her grow up since “Mermaids” and “The Addams Family” movies. After her gutsy celluloid transitions to adulthood in “The Ice Storm” and “The Opposite of Sex,” Ricci has had a bumpy road as an actress. Good in some movies (“The Man Who Cried”) while awful in others (“Pumpkin”). Here, she maintains Selby’s childishness very well, convincingly (90% of the time) depicting a character forever on the verge of adulthood, but never fully there. In a scene near the final act that takes place at a bus station, Ricci gives probably the best performance of her career.
But then there’s Theron. As I said, she has some great moments, but they mostly involve little to no dialogue, save for her final act of mercilessness. Much of the time, though, Theron gets way too showy. Her performance consists of twitches, stammering, flipping her hair back and widening her eyes. How did that critic put it? Yes, calculated. It’s a performance from a woman who has finally figured out what wins the attention of Oscar voters (lack of vanity, troubled souls and living in the lower-middle class) and does everything she can to pander to them, almost as though trying to determine ahead of time which scene will be her Oscar clip. As a result, Aileen often ends up being more of a caricature.Theron co-produced this film and obviously felt a strong need to bring Aileen’s story to the screen. I’m not sure why, really. I can’t say we have many good reasons to care about a scumbag woman who listens to Jiffy Lube rock (Journey, REO Speedwagon, etc.) and kills a lot of scumbag men. It isn’t a bad movie, just insignificant, really. I’m also not sure why I didn’t notice Theron’s mugging upon first viewing. I’ll never know, but I do believe both critics are overreacting a bit. I also know that I can sleep with a clear conscience knowing that I never put her on my Best Actress ballot to begin with. As far as doomed, tormented personalities go, I’m sticking with the great Angela Bettis in “May.” Multiple times.
link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=8418&reviewer=233
originally posted: 01/09/04 00:43:22