(2003) *** R
110 min. Newmarket. Director: Patty Jenkins. Cast: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Pruitt Taylor-Vince, Annie Corley.

Watching Monster brought to mind John Cleese's lament in 1985's Clockwise: "It's not the despair...I can stand the despair. It's the hope." In telling the story of recently executed killer Aileen Wuornos, Jenkins frames a woman who's been sold so many false clichés of hope that she stops believing a better life is possible. As the film begins, Wuornos is nearly ready to end it all when she decides to entertain the dubious advantage of having nothing left to lose. With Wuornos's glimmer of hope, Jenkins plants in the audience a sinking feeling which turns steadily to despair.

Jenkins leaves Wuornos's roller-coaster upbringing mostly off-screen. Wuornos's biological father, a child molester, abandoned her before she was born, and before she could remember, she was passed to her grandmother and alcoholic grandfather, her apparent parents. Both fathers committed suicide, and Wuornos struck out on her own not long after her pregnancy at age fourteen. Jenkins picks up the story with Wuornos drifting from truck-stop to truck-stop, prostituting herself to make ends almost meet.

Wuornos's final, tragic hope comes in the form of Selby (Christina Ricci, in a slightly fictionalized version of Wuornos's real-life compatriot), a young lesbian Wuornos meets in a chance gay-bar encounter. Wuornos, who identifies herself as heterosexual, surprises herself with her own emotional need; when she falls for Selby, she plays the rescuer, whisking Selby out of her fundamentalist foster home. A harrowing sexual assault by one of her tricks marks a turning point for Wuornos, but a probably justifiable murder in self-defense grows into a deluded long-term self-defense from the world (and predatory men both actual and perceived). Wuornos's string of seven murders bankrolled, to a point, her tenuous new life with Selby in cheap motels and on the road.

If Monster sometimes feels hemmed in by its docudrama, first-time writer-director Jenkins deserves credit for neither demonizing or lionizing Wuornos. The visual style of the film is muted and familiar with its neon, concrete dimness, but Jenkins makes interesting shock cuts by use of sound. The general impression Jenkins leaves is that Wuornos--who says at one ironic height "I always wanted to be in the movies"--is in no small part a victim of circumstance, and when the circumstances are this dismal, the argument is credible. Though she is a woman unequipped for life and bereft of a bearable existence most Americans take for granted, Wuornos makes her share of exacerbating, maddening choices.

The big story about Monster is the leading performance of Charlize Theron as Wuornos, and Theron does not disappoint. In perhaps the most astonishing physical transformation since Robert De Niro's bar-setting turn in Raging Bull, Theron packed on pounds, eschewed her usual glamorous makeup and hair, and enhanced the effect with a toothy appliance and liquid prosthetics. With her mottled skin, greasy hair, turned-down mouth, and overbite, Theron is nearly unrecognizable.

In casting the star, perhaps Jenkins had in mind a subliminal notion of lost inner beauty--Wuornos comes off as a woman hoping someone will see the diamond in her rough--but Theron's wild-eyed performance transcends the stunt. Wuornos was self-conscious about her appearance, fitfully so, which Theron observes; beyond that, Theron captures the dangerous, directionless hostility of a woman against the world, the hair-thin hesistancy of a woman in over her head, and the simple-mindedness and delusion which turned her unfortunately preposterous hopes into spiralling despair.

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