Aileen “Lee” Wuronos, on paper, is an almost offensively shameless Oscar-begging character: a serial killer/prostitute/lesbian. Add in a few extra points for this actually being a real person. Compounding matters considerably is the fact that, impossibly, the glacially beautiful South African-born Charlize Theron would be playing this downtrodden woman, who, let’s just say knew her way around the block (and had for many years). Fortunately, what could have descended into a camp nightmare of gigantic proportions instead provided a showcase for one of the most original star turns of the new cinematic millennium; one that actually ended up working.
Wuronos was executed on 9 October, 2002, about one year before the film was made. Her ashes were taken back to her native Michigan by her long-time confidante (and my former next door neighbor!) Dawn Botkins, who provided Jenkins and Theron with much of the original source material that, would become the foundation for this tremendous feat of acting.
Theron’s high-wire act could be compared to the theatrical, operatically over-the-top, and gimmicky antics of women like Faye Dunaway (as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest), Nicole Kidman (as Virginia Woolf in The Hours), and Annette Bening (as Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty)– all Oscar nominees (the former two winners); it is a level of commitment that is ferocious when combined with the actresses’ blend of tightly-controlled animal magnetism and star presence. The performances are very aware, very controlled, and aided in each case by a very specific “look” that the actress relies on to help get her point across. These are performances that veer dangerously toward the brink of caricature and could easily be seen as skirting camp disaster. Each of these actresses portraying a variety of damaged women, though, is able to rely on her own particular skill to pull it all together. Theron is the best example of this, in this writer’s humble opinion.
This is the kind of performance that rarely gets rewarded, something that comes along every so often and reminds you of what exactly actors are capable of accomplishing and capturing through good-old fashioned physical transformation (including 30 pounds gained by the leading lady and an array of prostheses). Justly, Theron’s phenomenal work as “Lee” took the Academy Award for Best Actress of 2003 (on 29 February — Wuronos’ real-life birthday), in first time director Patty Jenkins’ compellingly bleak character study, Monster.
The sequence that opens Monster provides the viewer with a brief and startling view of Lee’s life history. After these informative, shocking images, accompanied by words that bombard us with decades of details in mere minutes, we are transported into the bitter, somber reality of a grown-up Lee’s world. She is sitting beneath a dirty underpass on the side of a Florida highway, in the rain. Through the grit and despair, we see a figure holding a gun and contemplating the end. This is Lee; an unrecognizable Theron. Even her eyes look profoundly soulless and tragic (thanks to almost black, reptilian contact lenses). Lee is vaguely inhuman: lumpy, sketched out, wild-haired. She is a liar, a con-woman. Theron’s immersion into this character is done not as a blatant copycat act; she also employs a different, gravelly voice and a Midwestern cadence, haggard make-up on her skin, and tough body language. The actresses’ control over these restraints is a testament to her strength and range as a performer.
Lee (who has some obvious mental health issues) decides that she’d rather not kill herself with five bucks in her pocket – she rationalizes that she probably performed a sexual favor for it, and that would be akin to working for free. She figures that she should at least try and spend it before pulling the trigger. She wanders into a nearby lesbian bar where she has her first encounter with Selby (Christina Ricci). After a rough beginning the two begin to hit it off. That Lee gives the confused young woman a chance at all adds a dramatic dimension that is moving — there is a palpable connection between the two that makes the homeless, bruised hooker a more relatable, human character. This action is revelatory for someone who has been desperate to make a connection (to no avail) for so long. Their affair is doomed and implausible from the start, and it reeks of pathos. It makes the violence looming in the story’s distance more significant.
Humanity is oft-discussed when talking about filmed acting. The intricate psychology of Theron’s Lee is one of the best examples of this I can think of. The actress and the filmmaker sincerely take into account the confused sexuality of their lead character, providing an experimental portrait of sexual awakening that never degrades its subject. When talking with Tom (Bruce Dern), she realizes that she is talking romantically about a woman and quickly switches her pronouns. Up until this point, she didn’t identify with being a lesbian. Lee, high on new prospects readies for a date with Selby.
Ricci, in a solid supporting turn, is equally daring as a cipher lacking any clear personality of her own; somewhat excited to assume someone else’s. Selby is an amalgamation of real-life (Lee’s actual lover, Tyria Moore could not be depicted for legal reasons) and dramatic license (“Selby’s age, appearance, and history were all changed for the film). Selby is living in Florida on her strict, religious father’s orders, with equally staunch family acquaintances. She is equally as desperate as Lee, in other ways; and also struggling with her sexuality. This set-up allows for two highly original performances to be showcased in the film. Ricci’s performance has been maligned by critics as much as it has been praised, many times overlooked in the wrecking ball wake of Theron’s praise. The filmmakers’ bold choice to mix fact with fiction (while still remaining lovingly attached to the emotional truths of the story), and the pairing of these two women about to hit the bottom of their own downward spirals is assured.
The sadness comes back, and any optimism that may have been built up for the new and in love couple quickly flies out the window when the scenes of Lee hustling johns shows the hopelessness of her situation. There aren’t any realistic dreams of a sweet future, only fantasies. This all happens in the film’s first fifteen minutes or so. Monster hits like a truck.
That Lee is involved in a murder, while trying to raise money for a rendezvous with her would-be new love adds another heartbreaking layer to the proceedings. It becomes very clear that the life of a hooker is much different than what the film-going public has been treated to in the past: Lee isn’t Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. While some of her intentions seem to be pure, she definitely does not have a heart of gold and no billionaire playboy is going to take her out of this despair. Lee must constantly be on her guard, looking over her shoulder. Perhaps it is out of self-defense she kills her first trick after a “date” turns into a horror-show of rape and sexual torture that is genuinely appalling to watch, but it also highlights the dangers of Lee’s everyday life. This is the moment in the film in which Lee seems to break with reality — her primal scream after the killing will raise the hairs on your neck.
Strutting around, looking at her own blood-spattered and naked body in the mirror with a mix of disdain and curiosity before making love to Selby for the first time, may seem like an insignificant detail, but for me, it shows a level of commitment to every gesture that is missing from a great deal of modern screen acting. This is not a “natural” performance at all; it is otherworldly and manufactured, like the real woman. Lee begins to go on a murder spree to support Selby and work towards their dream of living in a small house in the keys. How does she become a murderer? Was she, as Lee claimed, victimized by all of the johns to a degree?
The scene in which Lee convinces Selby to stay with her for one week rather than return to Ohio (“You’ll never meet someone like me again”, she cagily barks) takes place immediately after the first killing. It is obvious that in this case, Lee realizes after the heat of the moment that what she did was wrong. She won’t recover from this crime, it’s almost as though Lee knows she will be going to jail forever. Perhaps in this is the moment of realization she constructs the elaborate fantasy future filled with domestic bliss with Selby where she assumes a macho, traditionally-male persona that dictates she protect and care for her “little woman”. After killing a man, Theron is shot lit from behind, enjoying a cigarette, exhaling a steady stream of smoke. As the camera retracts sluggishly, and she disappears into the blackness, you get the feeling that this signifies the woman’s confusion and her lack of control; that this is her final descent.
Lee actually still thinks that quitting hooking is a plausible thing. She thinks she wants to be a vet (“I fucking love animals”), or a “business person”. A series of humiliating job interviews (including one to be a legal secretary where she is degraded in a horrible way), in which a desperate Lee is inspired by her human connection to Selby to live life on the straight and narrow. This brief, unrealistic period lets Lee slip into the only place she has ever felt comfortable: in her romantic, delusional ideals of the perfect life. Monster really showcases the cycle of poverty, and abuse and shows how commonplace it is to become utterly stuck in it.
Unfortunately for Lee, this cycle began when she was raped as a child and never ended. That Lee never really had a chance and her inability to cope with the injustices committed against her is mournful. The scene in which she recounts pathetically to a john the tales of her childhood sexual abuse with disturbing candor or the shot of her begging for change are among the examples of Theron’s dedication to fully-fleshing out her character’s truth. The actress doesn’t stand in judgment, and balances all of these elements flawlessly. She keeps on killing and telling herself that she is the prey, that she is an avenging angel. It becomes hard for her to kill her final victim; she is snapped back into the reality of her life, except it is much too late to stop at this point. She has to kill the man to save herself from being caught.
Lee sends Selby back to Ohio to spare her from prison. The scene at the bus station is one of the most affecting in the film that features Lee, once so tough and confident, as a grief-stricken and raw tangle of nerves. She is filled with regret and sobs for help and forgiveness. Selby repays Lee’s loyalty and love by turning her in; accepting no blame for anything that happened while they were together, though she was well-aware of the killings. She tricks her former lover into taking all of the heat. This is Lee’s act of heroism: she takes the blame so Selby can have a life. The final scenes of Lee getting handed the death penalty, where Lee is used and tired are made even more haunting by Theron’s final haunting gaze directly into the camera being juxtaposed with hokey sayings about hope and love. The terror in her eyes shows that her fate has broken her.
Though Theron’s performance is very seductive, and her character is lethally charming, Jenkins keeps the film from ever fully surrendering to the whims of the killer. There is always a gently-placed hand of judgment placed between the audience and Aileen. It keeps us acutely aware of the horrors of her crimes — even though at times it might be easy to acquit her because of her circumstances. The film never excuses her behavior.