Charlize Theron as Aileen “Lee” Wuornos is stunning and unrecognizable in “Monster,” written and directed by Patty Jenkins. When you see Lee, you don’t recognize Theron. Lee is big, has a false swagger, full of testosteronic tendencies. But most of all, she has a class stamp all over her. With a slight change in the angle of her front upper teeth, she’d be a very close Gary Busey twin.
“Monster” is based on the notorious Florida state execution of Wuornos in 2002, with Jeb Bush as governor. Only one of 10 women executed in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated, Wuornos received her penalty after being convicted of murder. The men she killed were johns who picked her up based on the commerce of the body business.
But the class stamp is the key. That stamp has “one of the unemployable” all over it, and if we were in India, that class would be called “untouchable.” That most exploited class gets an extra squeeze on the Jerry Springer Show. In fact, “trailer trash” is now part of the English language, as though it’s forbidden to refer to poor, white people.
The movie opens as Lee goes into a gay bar after a very bad day turning tricks on Interstate 95 around Daytona Beach, Fla., and getting soaked in the rain. She meets Shelby Wall (Christina Ricci), 18, who has been sent to Florida by her parents to get the gayness out of her. Proclaiming straightness and homelessness, she spends the night with Shelby.
Both are ill at ease and are making accommodations. Batting deliciously doe eyes and manipulating her way into Lee’s heart, Shelby finds her way out of a Pat Robertson, Christian-style homophobic and racist household. Lee finds redemption in the rejection of prostitution with men who want her to function without feeling. Her swagger sweeps Shelby along as she convinces herself a new life will be had.
Reality sets in as Lee, feeling the pressure to provide and perform for Shelby, goes back to the interstate. Her next john viciously beats her unconscious and ties her up. When she reawakes, she takes a gun and kills him. She takes his money and car, but isn’t quite ready to share what happened with her new lover.
There are 25 scenes that speak to the wonder of Theron’s performance. One involves a john in his first encounter with a hooker. The 24th is the phone conversation between Lee and Shelby after Lee is picked up and jailed.
But it must be said that the film cheats Lee and Shelby. The camera lingers too long on the kissing scenes – enough so you’re thinking the scenes are about Theron and Ricci, not Lee and Shelby. In fact, the audience could just know they are lovers without all the extra flesh. It takes the movie over the edge to Hollywood manipulation of skin and forced drama, instead of a searing indictment of the manipulation of real people.
I’m reminded of the Brandon Teena documentary, and of “Boys Don’t Cry.” In these movies, the stories took their time to develop. Here, the story is set up as skin and high drama.
The monster I see filter through this film might be the state of Florida, which is known for its frequency of executions. The prosecution that constructed the “serial killer” argument worked in a state that wasn’t interested in providing a minimum wage, let alone a living one.
No, Florida is the monster that created this “Monster” that we might want to sink our teeth and soul into, so we’re not in line with a tabloid under our arm every week at the supermarket, reading about death.
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