There is little doubt that Charlize Theron will win this year's Oscar for Best Actress. In fact, it would be a startling surprise. Her performance as Aileen Wuornos, an unstable prostitute that is about the opposite of Theron in every possible way (in other words: ugly) that turns to killing several men, is unforgettable. She alone makes an otherwise ordinary movie worth every second.
Monster follows Aileen Wuornos near the end of the 1980's, as she attempts to get out of her prostituting profession but instead falls over the edge and into a psychotic spiral of murder. She spends much of the story with Selby (Christina Ricci), a young and misguided lesbian who tags along. Though in many ways they are in love, they are people from two very different backgrounds. While Selby is the first good thing that has happened to Aileen in her life, the years of prostituting and rape that she has dealt with has finally driven her over the edge. As the murders mount, Selby remains loyal, but even she is becoming to get scared of the woman, the creature, the monster that she sees before her.
The movie itself is good, but not grand. In many respects, it plays out like a really nice made-for-cable movie, which is not meant to be an insult by any means but sums things up pretty well. There is nothing explosive about the direction or cinematography; Monster is visually basic. Of course, that simplicity comes into play when you consider just how good the performances are in this movie; every bit of this film is about the acting and not a lot else.
Acting is useless, though, if there isn't a script to back it up, and while Patty Jenkin's direction is nothing extraordinary, her writing is quite incredible. Though I know little of who the real Aileen Wuornos is, Monster's script details a pathetically sad woman who was cursed from the beginning and was ultimately doomed to the fate she received (not execution, but her murders). Most interesting is that Monster never judges its subject (though the title, perhaps, suggests otherwise), and by the time the ending credits roll, it is almost impossible to have a love-her-or-hate-her opinion about the woman (though "feel-sorry-or-she-got-what-she-deserved" might be a better way of putting things). Jenkins has portrayed Wuornos as a deeply disturbed soul who is utterly lost and without hope of redemption, yet the major question is, can she stop herself? Wuornos knows what she is doing and defends her actions, yet at the same time knows that she has gone over the edge. What does that say about who she is?
So, Monster raises some interesting questions, but in reality, few people would be watching this movie if not for Charlize Theron. Theron, who has physically been transformed into the slightly-overweight, freckled and moderately ugly killer, is absolutely extraordinary. Enough can be said about the makeup job that turned one of the most beautiful women in the world into what she is in Monster (yet there is no Oscar nomination for the makeup team?), but Theron's transformation is more than a physical one. Her voice and mannerisms are different to the point where it is almost impossible to see Theron behind it all, and what results is the crowning achievement of her career and the beginning of what might be a more serious career. Theron has been around for a few years and is quite well known, but her one really good movie up until this point has been The Cider House Rules (though from an entertainment viewpoint, The Italian Job is quite fun as well). Most of her career has been spotted with so-so thrillers and a few comedies; Monster may mark a trend where Theron is able to capture some real content. She deserves it.
Kudos should also go to Christina Ricci, who also turns in an amazing performance as the subdued and rather quiet lover, Selby. Ricci's performance isn't nearly as overpowering as Theron's, but it still very impressive and fairly different from most of Ricci's other roles, which tend to be quirkier or darker.
Monster can most easily be compared to Monster's Ball (the titles are purely coincidental) in terms of quality. Monster's Ball established Halle Berry as more than just a pretty face, winning her the Oscar. The movie was okay but not extraordinary. The same can be said about Monster. It has put Theron on the map and will most likely win her the Oscar (though personally I still like Naomi Watts a little more), yet the movie itself is good without being great. Monster will forever be remembered as the movie where Charlize Theron acted her heart out, and that says it all.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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