If the last few years have taught us anything about the Oscars, it's that the Academy loves a glamorous actress in an unglamorous role. There was Hillary Swank's reverse drag act in 1999, Julia Robert's white-trash beauty queen in 2000, Halle Berry's inmate's widow in 2001, and Nicole Kidman's Pinocchio act in 2002. Last year's Best Actress race had all the suspense of a political convention: Swanlike Charlize Theron's ugly-duckling turn as the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster seemed to have the prize sewn up before the film was released, perhaps even before it was shot.
Happily (and somewhat surprisingly), the performance lives up to the hype. Though more than a few reviewers claim to have discerned hidden reserves in Theron from her roles in movies such as The Devil's Advocate and Celebrity, the truth is that over the course of her still-brief career, she had shown little sign that she was destined for anything more than eye-candydom. But in Monster, released on video this week, Theron gives a performance that, if overpraised by some (Roger Ebert called it "one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema"), is certainly remarkable. Much has been made of Theron's physical transformation--the weight she gained, the meticulously applied freckles and crooked teeth--but what truly impresses is the way she works from the outside in, discerning the character from the evidence of her body. Wuornos, who was 34 when she was arrested for the murders of seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990, had been a prostitute for two decades. Theron finds the weight of those years in the extra pounds and layers of makeup with which she encumbers herself. The Joffrey-Ballet-trained actress conveys just the right discomfort in her body, constantly torn between rejecting her femininity and playing it up, her swagger half-macho, half-terrified. It's a triumph of method acting that falters only in two circumstances: In her voiceovers, she seems to revert to the lovely, thin, uninteresting Theron of past performances, as if she loses the thread of the character the moment she ceases to embody her physically; and a couple of key confrontations with Christina Ricci, who plays her young lesbian lover, also fall flat. Ricci, though a gifted actress, is a mannered actress, and the collision between her precise acting style and Theron's blood-and-guts physicality works to neither's advantage. Still, these are quibbles: Theron's performance is brave, and it is true.
The same cannot be said of the film as a whole. Even as it takes pains to render Theron ugly, it consistently casts Wuornos in the most positive light possible. First-time director Patty Jenkins, while careful never to condone Wuornos's murders, nonetheless fills the film with quasi-justifications: She did it because of her abuse-filled childhood; she did it the first time because the man assaulted her and, subsequently, because she persuaded herself she was in danger; she did it because she needed money or she would lose the love of her life. In one significant respect--Wuornos's relationship with the Ricci character--Jenkins even alters history. In real life, the woman, Tyria Moore, was in her late twenties when Wuornos began her killing spree, and the two women had already been living together for a few years. Ricci's character, renamed "Selby," is much younger (a point made visually explicit by the size difference between Amazonian Theron and diminutive Ricci), and meets Theron days before the first murder. The first alteration helps render Theron a provider and protector for the childlike Ricci, more mother than lover. The second makes the killings seem a prerequisite of the relationship: Theron doesn't know any way to keep Ricci in her life except to kill and steal.
The result is that, throughout it all, Theron remains an innocent dreamer wandering through a cruel world. The film's title refers, explicitly at least, not to Theron but to a tall, red ferris wheel she was simultaneously attracted to and frightened of as a child. Whether you read this as a phallic reference or merely a metaphor for the grown-up world, its meaning is pretty clear: Society (or just male society) is the real monster here. For anyone who's missed such hints along the way, the film's message is encapsulated toward the end by its only entirely sympathetic character, a kindly old Vietnam vet played by Bruce Dern. "What you're feeling right now," he tells Theron, "is just guilt over something you had absolutely no control over." Theron concurs: "You know I feel like I never had a fucking choice."
It's hardly surprising that the film takes this view: The denial of moral agency is our culture's knee-jerk response to women who commit horrible crimes. As Patricia Pearson argues in her revelatory 1997 book When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away with Murder, "The operative assumption is that the violent woman couldn't have wanted, deliberately, to cause harm. Therefore, if she says she was abused/coerced/insane, she probably was." Such defenses, as Pearson notes, don't get far with men: Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, and Henry Lee Lucas were all abused as children, but that is hardly seen to mediate their culpability. The self-defense and childhood-abuse defenses didn't help Wuornos with the Florida justice system--she received multiple death sentences and was executed in 2002--but they've been central to her portrayal in the media. Monster is the second film depiction of Wuornos, following 1992's made-for-TV movie Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story. (The title is striking: One or two killings might have been okay, but seven is over.) Pearson writes of Overkill: "Films about male serial killers are always enacted as suspense dramas--will the cops catch him in time? But the only docudrama about a female serial killer--Aileen Wuornos--is billed as a relationship drama. The tag line: 'A friendship torn apart by murder.' Apparently her victims are secondary to her relationship to her best friend and lover Tyria Moore. It is the tale of two waifs against the world, good-hearted in an inexplicably naive way--considering their life experience--who try to protect each other and fail." Monster, sadly, squanders a great central performance by conforming to the same cultural cliché.