It’s a typical modest Hollywood success story. A young, female writer/director gets her first crack at a feature—a character-driven true story about an ill-fated love affair between two women, undone by one’s inability to heal the septic damage of her past and the destructive lengths she goes to incise it from her body and spirit.
The film does well. Really well.
For whatever reason, maybe this director sticks to TV for a few years (slumming I’d argue, she’s got chops destined for greatness, if chops were a quantifiable thing). Fourteen years pass before she lands her next feature—one of the most coveted would-be franchises out there. It would be a strange story if that coveted project, Wonder Woman, weren’t tailor-made for her skills, vision, and perspective. It might seem improbable if this director weren’t Patty Jenkins.
But if you saw Monster, you saw this success coming.
With Wonder Woman coming out this week, I—a woman given the pocket money to purchase a three-quarter sized, pink Lady Ticket to a superheroine film (is that right?) at the Alamo Drafthouse—was eager to revisit Jenkins’s 2003 powerhouse, Monster.
Monster tells the story of Aileen Wuornos, one of America’s few known female serial killers. But what is so brilliant about the film—written, it should be noted, by Jenkins—is that not only does the film humanize Wuornos, it does so in a way that makes her violence secondary to her story. Much of this can be attributed to Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning performance, portraying Wuornos as a twitchy livewire, equal parts destroyed and destructive. It’s Theron’s hallmark performance, no matter how badass and assured she is in other films. Here, Theron’s Wuornos is as deeply damaged and vulnerable as she is determined. While her first onscreen murder is portrayed as self-defense, the six that follow are vigilante payback and pure catharsis. No, that doesn’t make them justified, but for Theron and Jenkins to make us even momentarily consider the possibility is an achievement.
When the film was released, the popular media made a big deal about Theron’s transformation into Wuornos—the weight gain, the bad skin—but all that is dumb noise that elides Theron being willingly subsumed by this character. It’s a performance that never dances even close to parody or impersonation, instead showing us the charisma and magnetism that drew the character of Selby, Wuornos’s lover, to her.
For Theron to play Wuornos this way is surely intentional and a product of Jenkins’s script, which is light on the physical violence (for a movie about a serial killer) and heavy on psychological kind. A family friend of Selby’s describes Wuornos as “a street person” and she’s right. Wuornos had been homeless for years, but more to the point, without a home the whole of her existence. Abused and neglected from childhood, the Wuornos of Monster keeps her own counsel, periodically looking into the mirror in moments of insecurity to remind herself, presumably from the way Theron flirts with her own reflection, yes, still got it but also yes, I’m still here. I’m still here. After one of her murders, Wuornos returns to the dingy motel room she and Selby share and takes off her shirt to reveal a torso and breasts spattered with a victim’s blood. It’s almost as if Jenkins is showing us something provocative so that if we find ourselves momentarily titillated, our arousal should disgust us. As a sex worker, Wuornos has been used and discarded again and again. As an audience, we’re forced to confront our own feelings about that.
Monster isn’t a film about lionizing or demonizing Aileen Wuornos. It’s one woman’s story, and a horrific one at that. While the violence Wuornos inflicted was an outlier, her systematic, lifelong abuse was not. There are other Aileens out there, and what Jenkins recognized was that there was the story. For all the fascination they evoke, the reality is that serial killers are inherently uninteresting. There’s no point wasting time parsing the meaning of evil. Instead the focus should be squarely on the ways evil is created and perpetuated. How is a person made evil? Monster shows us that, asking important questions about our own complicity along the way.
So, yes, I want to hear what Patty Jenkins has to say next. Sit beside me at the showing, or sit at home. I don’t care. Women look evil in the eye every day. We might as well have some fun in our downtime.
Featured Image: Newmarket Films