“Monster” is second a biopic and first a battle between nature and nurture. The film miraculously exists in that very thin space where it neither empathizes or shames its central figure. What could have been a run-of-the-mill, real-life murder movie is instead a nuanced look into the mind of a killer without ever knowing what they are truly thinking.
While “Monster” succeeds on all levels, its accomplishments are owed to two women in particular: Charlize Theron and Patty Jenkins. Theron plays Aileen Wuornos, a wayward prostitute scarred by abuse with no refuge in an unforgiving society. Once she had dreams of being in showbiz, later those were downgraded into more simple aims of beautiful. Charlize Theron dives deep into Wuornos’ cigarette-stained shell, crafting a woman who could be a close friend or even a significant other if she had just made one less mistake.
Director Patty Jenkins refuses to simply cast sympathy on Wuornos, nor does she fully condemn or convict her either. The touching embraces Wuornos shares with her young girlfriend Selby (Christina Ricci) are immediately countered by brutal instances of assault and abuse. Jenkins crafts intimacy and rage in every scene, our emotions in a constant free fall as we can never find a safe level to stand on. When Wuornos starts murdering her often savage gentlemen callers, there’s initially a sense of vicarious justice that’s immediately disbanded by disgust and shame.
But the biggest success is not the caliber of the performances but the written complexity of “Monster’s” characters, a taut awareness of blue-collar life and an acknowledgement of the immediate calm that comes from just thinking about escape. Wuornos and Selby’s scheme to start a new life on the beach is rocky and unrealistic. But as their smiles rise just from the simple discussion of being in new town where nobody knows your name, the tragedy of Wuornos is most clear: She’s a murderer and is responsible for her own actions, but even if her path could have been changed, there was likely no one willing to help.