“I always wanted to be in the movies.” These are the first words spoken in Patty Jenkins’ film about Aileen Wuornos, the so-called “first female serial killer,” executed 9 October 2002. As Monster will go on to underline, Aileen’s ambition is tragically ironic. In fact, her unhappy, defiant life, it turns out, has been the subject of more than one movie, including the made-for-tv Overkill (1992) and two documentaries by Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992), and the upcoming Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer.
While the documentaries explore the failures of social and legal systems in order to sort out Wuornos’ convoluted story (her childhood abuse, her mental illness, her exploitation by tabloids, courts, and individuals), the biopics predictably focus on personal tragedies and crises. To its credit, Jenkins’ film, which only occasionally resorts to melodrama, doesn’t show Aileen to be a “monster” without context. Instead, it presents her descent into violence and madness as a process as frightening to her as to you.
Still, Monster is fictionalized, conflating and reimagining events, trying to make sense of events that won’t resolve themselves, ever. It begins around the time of the first murder committed by Aileen (co-producer Charlize Theron, carrying 30 extra pounds and makeup by Toni G). In the film’s timeline, this occurs just as she meets the unexpected love of her life, Selby Wall (the distractingly awkward Christina Ricci), a character based on the real life Tyria Moore, who agreed to have her final phone call to Aileen tapped by police. (The film’s version of this phone call corresponds to reports that Aileen understood what was going on at that moment, and confessed in order to save her lover from punishment.)
Though the movie covers only months in Aileen’s life, the period when she was killing, it alludes to her background occasionally, but effectively. A prostitute since the age of 13, Aileen explains, in her indefatigably naïve voice-over (over a montage of dodgy johns picking her up in beater cars), that she had long hoped to be “discovered,” or at least “loved” for brief moments. She’s destitute and suicidal when she meets Selby, who has been cast off to live with relatives in Daytona Beach by her father, still a Christian enthusiast still raging against her lesbianism back in Ohio.
The women’s encounter in a divey lesbian bar is at once foreboding and mundane. “By the time I met Selby Wall,” Aileen sighs in the voice-over, “Shit, all I wanted was a beer.” (There’s likely something to be said for Selby’s last name, the end of Aileen’s possibilities.) Insisting that she’s “not gay,” as this is hardly an identity she might imagine for herself, Aileen looks almost surprised that Selby — that anyone — might treat her with basic civility, let alone flirt with her.
When the bartender finally chases them off, drunk, into the night, Selby invites Aileen to sleep in her bed — a crucifix hanging ominously over the headboard. Each is touched by the other’s timidity, unusual amid the aggressions they encounter daily. As the relationship develops, the fact that Selby is wearing an arm cast when they meet becomes all too significant: fragile and whiney, she’s all too ready for Aileen to rescue her from an overbearing (offscreen and Christian) father. In turn, Aileen wants to be the hero; tired of waiting for her own future to commence, she sees her better self reflected in Selby’s relentlessly needy eyes.
This self takes shape most immediately and vehemently in response to a psychotic-seeming john (Oz‘s Lee Tergesen) who declares his loathing of all “hookers nowadays,” even though, he adds, “they’re better than my fuckin’ wife.” As he sodomizes and tortures her, the camera focuses first on her bloodied face, then cuts occasionally to Selby, who awaits her outside the roller skating rink (as the film times it, Aileen has turned this particular trick at the last minute, in an effort to afford a decent date). With her own life at risk, Aileen’s violence looks almost like self-defense. The fact that she shoots him multiple times (“You motherfucker!”) seems a function of her years of abuse and frustration, suddenly let loose.
As unsettling as this scene is, her eventual arrival at Selby’s doorstep, bruised and wearing the dead man’s trucker’s cap, is worse. This because Aileen begins to frame her situation as impossible When Selby complains about the missed date, all Aileen can say is, “I really fuckin’ meant to be here, okay?” Indeed, this will become a sort of refrain — she means to change, to “clean up,” to get a legitimate job to support her woman, but she never has a chance.
According to Monster, even if Aileen’s intentions are admirably romantic (“You’ll meet someone like me again,” she tells Selby), she remains disastrously mystified by everyday existence. Putting on a cheap, colorful dress, she applies for secretarial jobs (“I’m real good with people”). Even as she wants to trust that “All you need in life is love and to believe in yourself,” she’s increasingly enraged when no one will hire her. Desperate to provide for Selby, Aileen turns again and again to murdering johns, a bizarre sort of “vocation” that provides her with wallets of cash, serial vehicles, and a sense of control for brief minutes.
These scenes are more and more disturbing, as she acts as if on impulse, then hates herself for what she’s done. The movie doesn’t show every murder committed by Wuornos, but offers a range from creeps to bumblers — including an ill at ease virgin (Taylor Pruitt Vince) and gentle, plainclothes lawman (Scott Wilson, one of the killers in 1967’s In Cold Blood). Moreover, the film maintains she’s not a man-hater per se, only searching for a sense of purpose, a way to understand her own disorder. Indeed, the one character in whom she confides is a gnarly Vietnam veteran Tom (Bruce Dern), who pops up for convenient heart-to-hearts.
During one of these, Tom broaches an idea the film has no time to develop: Aileen is a victim of perpetual and undiagnosed trauma. This isn’t to say that she looks especially sympathetic, but she does appear here as more complicated than evil. Jenkins tells the New York Times that she “wanted to tell the truth, that I wanted to find that space in between the man-hating lesbian serial killer and the feminist hero” (30 December 2003). While Monster is not so well-structured or nuanced as the film to which it has been repeatedly compared, Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry, and lapses occasionally into over-plotted clumsiness, it does find this space.
Aileen is a terrifying specter, precisely because she’s neither only a victim nor only monstrous. As Theron plays her, she swaggers and rationalizes, trusts and fumes. (Occasionally, her heavily enunciated white trashy butchy bravado draws too much attention to the role’s obvious Oscar-turniness.) When she finally “gets it,” and understands her limits if not her crimes, it’s only because she’s been deceived once too often. (In her real life, Broomfield reports, Wuornos turned increasingly paranoid and psychotic during her last years in prison, a situation that only underlines the State’s lack of support, for her and others like her.)
The final moments of Monster — reenacting Ty/Selby’s infamous betrayal and Aileen’s outburst in court — are testament to the combined horror and banality of Wuornos’ story. As she’s led out in her orange jumpsuit, her voice-over reminds you of the cultural platitudes that have so consistently failed her: “Faith can move mountains, everything happens for a reason.” This indictment is at least as harsh as any leveled against Aileen. Oh well, she says at last, “They gotta tell you somethin’.”