January 09, 2004


Once in a very rare while you watch an actor's performance and you consciously are aware that you are seeing something that will forever change your perception of not only that actor but of how deeply certain performances can stir your very soul. The first time I remember going through that experience was my first time see Robert De Niro in RAGING BULL, especially in the scenes where he and his wife are fighting. You feel like a third person in the room who is seeing something you shouldn't be. You're almost tempted to avert your eyes. Al Pacino in PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK or DOG DAY AFTERNOON are other good examples. For slightly older folks than me, Marlon Brando in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE was said to change the thinking about acting styles in the eyes of many. For female actors, I recall Meryl Streep in SOPHIE'S CHOICE, Liv Ullman in SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, and Gena Rowlands in A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE. But in recent memory, no one comes close to what Charlize Theron pulls off in MONSTER. They shouldn't even bother nominating her for an Oscar; they should just hand it to her now.

By now you've probably read something about the person that Theron is portraying in MONSTER. Aileen Wuornos (whose last name is never actually said in the movie, interestingly enough) was a Florida prostitute who killed a small handful of men who had picked her up on the road for sex. Her spree began with the murder of a man who raped her, but the rage inside her began building before she was even a teenager. Raped by a family friend beginning at age eight, a prostitute at 13, Wuornos has long been credited with being the first female serial killer in American history. She was executed after much pressure by Florida Governor Jeb Bush just recently. The first thing you notice about Theron as Wuornos is the physical transformation: the gained weight, the false teeth, the shaved eyebrows, the ratty hair, the splotchy complexion. But the main thing you notice is that the woman on the screen in no way resembles the Uber-babe I saw a few months ago in THE ITALIAN JOB. The actress playing Aileen Wuornos is a train wreck of a woman, whose life seemed predestined to be lived and end badly. At any one minute, Theron's face changes to show us what passes for happiness, pain, fear, and ultimately sheer fury as she kills her would-be clients believing all of them to be potential rapists. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Theron and first-time writer-director Patty Jenkins is that they inject Wuornos with a soul, twisted and tortured to be sure, but a soul nevertheless. When Wuornos declares to her girlfriend, Selby (Christina Ricci) that she's a good person, we flinch at this statement, but ultimately we realize it may be trued. And this makes us take great pity on her even as she kills.

What separates MONSTER from so many other Hollywood-ized films about serial killers is that there's nothing slick or polished about it. Wuornos never crept up from the shadows to kill her victims, she shot them while they were looking right at her. She doesn't cleverly cover her tracks and leave calling cards for the police to collect; she just kept moving and it took the authorities very little time to find her. The film also does a credible job letting us into Wuornos' mind, into her past, and her into her desperate attempts at leading a normal life with Selby. Bruce Dern is also on hand as Aileen's only male friend, Thomas, whom she views as the only man who doesn't want to hurt her, probably because he look 200 years old and can barely stand upright. And for all of the things I liked so much about MONSTER, the element my mind keeps returning to is Theron's performance. I can see and hear her so clearly in my mind. Her profanity-saturated manner of speaking, her exaggerated masculine posture when she wants to look tough, the way even a smile looks grotesque on her face, all of these details combine to give us the most perfectly drawn character I've seen in as long as I can remember. MONSTER is a film that will unnerve you while you watch and haunt you when it's over.

Posted by sprokopy at January 9, 2004 02:46 PM