The first time we see the adult Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) in Monster, she's sitting under a freeway bridge with a gun in her hand, contemplating suicide. It's 1989, she's homeless and working as a prostitute on the highways of northern Florida. Tortured by a lifetime of sexual abuse and sick to her soul with the profession she's fallen into, she sees no obvious way out other than death. Instead of pulling the trigger, she goes to the nearest bar to spend her last five bucks on beer. It turns out to be a gay bar and drinking there, underage, is Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a young lesbian. Selby is instantly smitten by Aileen, who informs her in no uncertain terms that she's straight but befriends the girl and, despite herself, falls for her.
Aileen tells Selby that, sitting under that bridge, she'd made a deal with God: either make something happen for me or I'll kill herself. She believes Selby is the Lord's gift to her, someone who'll love her and give her motivation to change her life. What she doesn't understand is that it's her life as it is that appeals to Selby. The sheltered daughter of Christian suburbanites, she's excited to be with this street person, a real-life prostitute no less! It's an adventure for her, a vacation from reality and one she expects Aileen to finance. Of course Aileen has no means of earning honest money and, feeling responsible for Selby, she reluctantly goes back to selling herself. It's only when she receives a vicious beating by a client and turns his gun on him that she realises there is another way to make money and at the same time exact vengeance on the male gender she's come to hate.
When she was finally arrested by Florida police in 1990, Aileen Wuornos had killed seven men in thirteen months and had achieved notoriety as America's first female serial killer. She was sentenced to death and, after 12 years of failed appeals, executed by lethal injection in 2002. She's been the subject of countless books and TV shows, most of them lurid true-crime trash, and also two acclaimed documentaries by British film-maker Nick Broomfield. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling Of A Serial Killer (1992) dealt with the media circus surrounding her trial, while Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer (2003) concentrated on her appeals and her mental disintegration in jail which led to her ultimately firing her lawyers and petitioning the court to be executed.
Monster's writer-director Patty Jenkins has been admirably even-handed. Her film simply presents Aileen, it doesn't beg sympathy for her. If you believe Aileen Wuornos deserved the death penalty, Monster is unlikely to change your mind. Since it ends more or less with her arrest, it omits the part of her story which would probably evoke the most empathy for her: her twelve years on death row. The murders on the other hand are shown in horrific detail, Aileen working herself up into a murderous rage before each killing, drawing on memories of men who abused her in the past. Most of her victims don't deserve to die, even by Aileen's personal system of ethics. Like Larry Clark's Bully, Monster depicts murder without any glamour or sensationalism, as a sad and sordid act.
That you can still feel some semblance of pity for Wuornos, some vain hope that her humanity will win out is mostly down to Charlize Theron. Praising her acting seems almost redundant since she's already scooped just about every award there is for it, including the Best Actress Oscar. The greatest compliment I can pay her is to say it isn't overhype, this really is one of the most compelling performances of recent years. Credit must also go to Christina Ricci, who has the only other substantial role in the film, and does the best work of her career with a less showy but equally complex part.
This is one of the most gripping and harrowing dramas you're likely to see this year and one of the most intelligent. It contains no heroes or even likeable characters, just damaged human beings who are unable to overcome their own flaws and bring out the worst in others. It's the way Patty Jenkins and her cast capture their humanity that makes the story so riveting and so horrible. The underlying message is clear and it's an old maxim: the child is the father of the man, or the mother of the woman. Abuse a child and create a monster.