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It’s a thin line between love and hate

by Kaori Shoji

Monster

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Patty Jenkins
Running time: 109 minutes
Language: English
Opens Sept. 25
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Aileen Wuornos is often tagged the first female serial killer and the first U.S. woman to receive the death penalty neither is true, as there have been reported executions of American women as far back as 1912 and she certainly wasn’t the first woman to go on a killing spree. But she was perhaps the first to achieve a kind of rock-star status: Charged with the murders of seven men in Florida during the 1980s, she made headlines, gave TV interviews, had her face printed on T-shirts with slogans like “Death to All Sons of Bitches” and continued to generate media interest until her execution in 2002. Just before her demise, she had feminist groupies who saw her as an avenging angel what had started out as a personal tragedy had been blown up and then airbrushed for a political cause. How Aileen Wuornos really felt about this remains unknown; in the end, she had stopped talking to the press, expressing only her desire for a swift execution.

Director Patty Jenkins was among the many filmmakers fascinated by Aileen (Joan Churchill and Nick Broomfield’s documentary “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer” is the most prominent example), but her genius lay in the fact that she cast Charlize Theron to play her, reportedly after seeing a close-up of Theron’s runny nose in “The Devil’s Advocate.” She had a hunch Theron would say yes to becoming Aileen a convicted killer and longtime hooker with bad teeth, sun-ravaged skin and an overweight swagger. There seems to be a lot of distance between all that and a runny nose, but Jenkins was right: Theron went the whole nine yards for “Monster.” She put 13 kg of weight on her body and a mask of mottled latex skin on her face. She covered up her brilliant white teeth with buck fangs and mastered the slouching gait. For her trouble, she got the Academy Award for Best Actress, but she deserved it for much more than her makeup.

Confronted with the first scenes of Aileen swigging beer in a cheap Florida bar, my brain short-circuited while trying to reconcile this figure with Theron, the Charlize Theron whom I thought could never be anything less than spanking glamorous. Not only does Jenkins completely deglamorize her, she does a gray paint job on the whole movie as well there’s simply nothing here that has been manicured. Nothing and no one is pretty, and “Monster” is coolly unapologetic about it.

Between Jenkins and Theron, they reinterpret the Aileen icon and mold her in their image, one that’s perhaps more sentimental, less aggressive and more of a victim than the killer whom we once saw preening herself in the courtroom. But Theron’s Aileen is never remotely phony. Whether she’s spluttering with rage (at the world, at men, at her girlfriend Selby during one of their many stormy fights), or laying bare a neediness so acute it makes you flinch (it’s always Aileen who breaks down and begs Selby not to leave, promising more money and good times), she always comes across as real flesh and blood, so much so that you can almost smell the diesel in her dirty blonde hair from hooking for hours on a Florida freeway.

At one point, out of love and the need for self-respect, Aileen tries to get a “real job” in a law firm, but is coldly told off by the interviewer: “People like you can’t just suddenly decide to get the kind of life others have worked hard for all their lives.” Aileen’s features screw up in impotent rage and she unleashes her only defense: “F**k you, you bastard, f**k you!” In “Monster,” Aileen utters the F-word at the rate of once every minute or so, and in the 109-minute movie, she doesn’t have many moments that allow her to smile.

Aileen is full of rage and frustration, but her first murder is purely out of self-defense, and Jenkins attributes her other killings to lack of funds (Selby won’t work and Aileen wants to her to be as happy as possible). Still, the scene in which Aileen kills her first john is tinged with a sort of vengeful brutality. True, the guy is a scumbag who batters Aileen before attempting to rape her (the real victim had a record of assaulting women). But when Aileen eventually empties her gun into him, there’s no denying it’s a bit of a “Yo!” moment, geared for cathartic release.

From this point on, Aileen takes to taunting her clients before murdering them (“Do you want me to call you Daddy, huh? How would that make your wife feel, huh?”). Aileen had convinced herself that most men represented The Enemy and the story stresses how easy it was for her to reach that conclusion: As a pre-teen, she was physically abused by her father, and then abandoned by her family. After that, she lived in the Michigan backwoods and fended for herself. The men she met had mostly insulted her, abused her or freely expressed their disgust.

“Monster” is most heartbreaking when the story shifts to the relationship between Aileen and Selby. When the pair first meet in a bar, Aileen is prickly and guarded, but on their first date (at the local skating rink where they glide awkwardly with arms around each other) she allows herself to show real tenderness. The older Aileen takes on the man’s role by becoming the breadwinner, planner and purchaser of little treats for the increasingly disgruntled Selby (played by a brilliantly insightful Christina Ricci), who wants to “party, meet new people, have a good time.” When funds are low, Selby has no qualms about making Aileen hook, even though she knows what her lover must do to make the next 20 bucks.

But, of course, the most wrenching thing of all is the fact that Theron ventured out on a limb, came back and then walked the red carpet all the way to Hollywood glory. No such fate was in store for Aileen Wuornos. At the beginning of the movie, Aileen says she had started out wanting to be like Marilyn Monroe, sexy and loved by everyone. In retrospect, out of everything she says, these are the words most painful to recall.