It's easy to get into heated debates regarding the morality of creating a feature film about the life of Aileen Wuornos, America's first female serial killer. Certainly Wuornos herself, before her execution on 9th October 2002, was well aware of the plans to make a movie about her, and was, to put it politely, somewhat annoyed. It definitely seems somewhat suspect to create what is essentially a piece of entertainment out of the horrific crimes she committed so soon after the fact, and there is also something slightly unsettling about the fact that Wuornos is, throughout the film, the protagonist and therefore probably the individual that the audience is expected to identify with the most. That said, such arguments, while certainly valid, are perhaps best left to one side given Monster's surprising power as a solidly constructed and quite touching piece of work.
The plot itself has been sufficiently laid out in Nick Broomfield's two excellent documentaries, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992) and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003), but to briefly summarize here, Aileen was a woman who had a violent and neglectful upbringing. Thrown out by her family, she had to fend for herself and took to prostitution at an early age. When one client attacked her, she ended up killing him, but eventually murdered several others before finally being caught. She was finally executed last year after a very public and protracted trial, with many criticizing the decision to kill a criminally insane woman. This film adaptation deals mainly with the events in her life after meeting a teenage girl, called Selby Wall here (although her real-life equivalent was in fact a 24-year-old called Tyria Moore), with whom she fell in love and took off, and who was one of the main witnesses who testified against her at her trial. The film, obviously very much a product of the Hollywood system despite being helmed by a first-timer, does tend to romanticize this relationship somewhat and structures their story in a way that makes it seem vaguely reminiscent of Thelma & Louise, but for the most part it avoids either glamourizing or condemning Aileen's actions.
From this point on, it would probably make sense to distance the film itself from the events that inspired it, since it is at the end of the day the movie that counts. A lot has been made both of Charlize Theron's acting talents and her commitment to the role, and this praise is absolutely valid. Few other actors would invest so much in the role, gaining 30 lbs and studying the real-life Aileen Wuornos so closely that she has been able to mimic her behaviour down to the smallest quirks. Thanks to Tony G's makeup effects, Theron is transformed into someone that could almost pass for a doppelganger of the real Wuornos - no mean feat, when you consider what Theron normally looks like. Somewhat overlooked amid all the praise that has been heaped on Theron is Christina Ricci, who as an actor seems to improve with each subsequent movie, and whose talents have in my opinion been criminally underrated. Their relationship and its portrayal is an interesting one, with Selby frequently warned by family members that Aileen is just using her, despite the fact that it is made abundantly clear on several occasions that it is, in fact, the other way round, with Selby exploiting Aileen. In fact, at times it is even suggested that it is Selby who drives Aileen to kill.
First-time writer/director Patty Jenkins' master stroke is to focus not on the murders Wuornos committed but on her relationship with Selby. This prevents the film from becoming either too glamorous or too morbid in its presentation of death. By restricting the portrayal of Wuornos' murders to a number of key scenes, Jenkins prevents this aspect of the film from overwhelming the audience and allows her to look at the effect a hostile society can have on people. Jenkins' direction is remarkably assured for a first-timer, giving the film a gritty, realistic look that helps to drive home the fact that this is, at the end of the day, based on a true story. There aren't many original artistic choices - the film is very much shot "straight", not going for any special visual tricks - but special mention must be given to the way that music is used. BT's original score is excellent and comes in at just the right moments to underscore the emotion, and equally impressive is the inclusion of various licensed tunes from the 80s, including the highly effective use of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing", in the scene in which Aileen and Selby get together.
The film is presented anamorphically in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Metrodome's press releases described the transfer as having "maximum bit-rate encoding", and they weren't kidding. With an overall average bit-rate of 9.41 Mbps and a more or less fixed 8 Mbps for the video alone, this is the highest bit-rate disc I have ever come across, and unsurprisingly this results in one of the most film-like transfers I've ever seen. Detail is consistently very good and the grain structure is preserved remarkably. Much of the movie takes place in dimly lit environments with desaturated colours, and this is carried over remarkably. This really is a top-drawer DVD transfer, and Metrodome have taken a route that more DVD producers should adopt. This, to me, should have been what the DVD format was all about, rather than the sloppy, blocky mess that many transfers become after encoding.
Audio options come in the form of three English mixes, catering to every possible target viewer: 2.0 stereo, as well as 5.1 surround in both DTS and Dolby formats. The DTS track is unsurprisingly the way to go, and while it is hardly a split-channel effects extravaganza (the dramatic nature of the film hardly facilitates surround action), it is a very strong mix with great depth and excellent clarity. The music - both BT's original score and the many licensed songs - all sound great, resulting in a very satisfying experience.
Clear, accurate subtitles are provided in English for the feature itself but, sadly, not for any of the extras.
Disc 1 features a solid Commentary, in which Patty Jenkins, Charlize Theron and producer Clark Petersen discuss various aspects of the film, ranging from the authenticity of what is presented in the film versus what actually happened in real life, to what it was like to shoot various scenes.
Disc 2 begins with Monster, The Vision and The Journey, a 25-minute "fly on the wall" documentary looking at various aspects of the film's production and featuring input from a number of the key members of the cast and crew. Especially interesting is a lengthy look at the process of creating the make-up for Charlize Theron.
The Making of a Monster, a UK exclusive documentary, takes a slightly different angle from that of the previous documentary, focusing mainly on a series of in-depth interviews with Jenkins and Nick Broomfield, the man responsible for the two defining documentaries on the life and death of Aileen Wuornos. Clips from Broomfield's interviews with Wuornos are also included, giving a significant amount of insight into her psyche and revealing a lot that is not included in the film at all. It's something of a shame that Broomfield's documentaries were not included in this set, as they were in the German 3-disc special edition, but what is featured here is certainly extremely interesting. Jenkins here explains the reasons for many of the changes made to the story for the film, which will hopefully go some way towards placating those who criticized Jenkins for glamorizing the events.
Next up is a collection of five Deleted and extended scenes, all with optional commentary by Jenkins.
A Film making demo is also included. This bizarre feature allows the viewer to choose different audio combinations for the ferris wheel sequence, including dialogue and music, dialogue and effects, music only and effects only. There is nothing particularly enlightening about it, but some people will probably find it entertaining.
Monster - Evolution of the Score is a series of interviews with Jenkins and composer BT, discussing the development of the score, including the tone they were aiming for and the various uses of surround sound in the music.
Trailers (the UK theatrical trailer, two US theatrical trailers, a promo for Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, and a bunch of trailers for other Metrodome releases) complete this package.
At times unnerving to watch, Monster is an extremely potent film that works both as an engaging drama and as a frightening look at the human psyche. Presented in an excellent 2-disc set by Metrodome that easily beats the more or less bare-bones American version, this release is easy to recommend.