With 2003’s Monster and now 2017’s Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins has proven herself to be a master at depicting fallen worlds, where women must navigate morally-ambiguous societies. In Wonder Woman, that involved the titular hero coming to grips with the notion that mankind is not universally good, only driven to destruction due to the unseen mechanizations of a wily God of War. Monster’s storyline basically functions as an inverse of that setup. Presenting the life of convicted serial killer Aileen Wuornos from her early years to first murder conviction, Jenkin’s debut feature profiles someone who must grapple with there being some good left in mankind, even if its finite, fragile and small.

Monster is probably one of the more daring serial killer films ever made, treating its subject with humane sensitivity. It’s a difficult line to walk, as no one would want to be accused of condoning such brutality. But it’s one Jenkins manages to tread beautifully. Under her guiding hand, Monster is sympathetic of Wuornos but not complicit in her psychosis or violence.

The writer/director first introduces us to Aileen Wuornos (played by a completely unrecognizable Charlize Theron as an adult) through a brief prologue, shot in the style of what looks like a 16mm home movie. The sequence is a heavily-abridged version of the woman’s early life, depicting her gradual descent into prostitution and vice. It then moves forward dramatically in time and follows Wuornos in Daytona Beach, Florida, as she meets Christina Ricci’s Selby, a shy, reserved and somewhat inept woman who eventually becomes Wuornos’s best friend, close confidante and lover.

Jenkins’ script delves into the intimite nature of the relationship between Selby and Wuornos, illustrating a co-dependency that is volatile and toxic but also strangely moving in parts. In Selby, Wuornos finds a small measure of love that has been missing from her life. And Ricci’s Selby is almost immediately transfixed by Wuornos, seeing her as a beacon of strength that she has never known. The two women wind up moving in together, with Wuornos continuing to work as a prostitute to support them. However, when she winds up killing a sadistic client in an act of self-defense, her life unravels into a stream of murder that threatens to destroy both her and Selby.

While Monster could technically be classified as a serial killer film, the movie ignores more genre tropes than it embodies. The film almost entirely omits any of the efforts made by law enforcement to find, try and convict Wuornos, instead keeping its focus on the main couple. Monster also features a killer that has a clear character arc, whose emotional relationship towards the act of killing changes dramatically over the course of the story. Unlike other murderers in iconic serial killer movies – titles like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs and Seven – Aileen Wuornos does not show up in Monster fully-formed.

This structure provides the catalyst for Theron’s electrifying acting. While it may be slightly hyperbolic to second Roger Ebert and say, “This is one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema,” Theron’s performance as Wuornos is disturbingly good, undoubtedly one of the best in the history of serial killer cinema. Employing a striking physicality (which involved weight gain, extensive makeup and ample prosthetics) and a kinetic, emotional volatility, Theron in Monster does feel close to someone simply living, not acting.

There’s a totality of vision to her performance, marked by a focus and intensity present even in little moments. One in particular occurs directly after her Wuornos meets Selby for the first time. The two women are saying goodbye on the driveway of the house Selby is staying at, and Theron’s Wuornos seems as if she is incapable of standing still, even accidentally opening the mailbox and then awkwardly shutting it again. It’s this type of attention to detail that bowled me over, evoking memories of something like Marlon Brando’s casual handling of the glove in the 50’s classic On the Waterfront.

As Selby, Christina Ricci is at an acute disadvantage by having to act against Theron, who has the much more colorful part. Selby is infinitely more reserved, but Ricci plays her expertly, projecting a vulnerability and social awkwardness that is quite moving. Jenkins’ script doesn’t leave Selby in the lurch either. The film charts out a course for the woman, giving her an arc that is not quite as robust as Wuornos, but is also certainly not static.

Tying these laudable performances into a larger whole is the direction of Jenkins, who between Monster and Wonder Woman has now established herself as a major force behind the camera. Stylistically, Monster is a far less flashy film then some of the other major entries in serial killer cinema, but its mise-en-scene is no less assured. Many of Jenkins’ department heads do strong work. Steven Berstein’s photography and Shawn R. McFall’s set decoration create a world of smoky bars; foggy, ominous highways; and grimy motel rooms. Rhonda Meyers’ costumes and Toni G’s makeup also contribute strongly to the film’s overall effect, populating the frame with individuals who look like they have lived and lived hard. One of the film’s few weaknesses is probably the music, which simply wasn’t that memorable. Oh, I also could have done without the bookending voice-over narration.

It is within this gritty and somewhat hellish world that Jenkins wages her investigation into the unique and disturbing pathology of Aileen Wuornos, a woman who, despite her capacity for violence, claims, “I’m not a bad person. I’m a real good person.” On the surface, such a statement seems so absurd that it’s almost laughable. But Jenkins command over the material is so strong that, at times, you’re not entirely sure. Without question, Wuornos was someone who did a lot of bad things, but she also had an enormous amount of bad things happen to her. In using this figure, Jenkins is able to ask serious questions about how human beings are shaped by circumstance, but also where the role of agency comes into play. And in doing so, the writer/director showcases this particular genre at its best, in that it is able to use the act of killing to explore everything else.

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