January 19, 2004

The Monster Within


Dramatic physical transformations of actors and actresses are often perversely fascinating, even when PCC reminds herself that these people have the money, and the time, to hire trainers to drop or gain back the excess weight before the next role beckons. Cynicism aside, Charlize Theron's transformation from a tall, blonde beauty with a model's body to a paunchy, disheveled prostitute in Patty Jenkins' debut film, Monster, is truly remarkable. Theron plays Aileen "Lee" Wurnos, widely regarded as America's first female serial killer, a prostitute who killed seven of her johns in the mid-1980s before being executed in Florida in 2002. The victim of abuse as a child and a long string of bad luck, Lee found herself hitch-hiking and prostituting along Florida highways. It was along a rainy stretch of road near Daytona Beach that Lee first met Shelby (Christina Ricci), a shy lesbian who tries unsuccessfully to hit on Lee in a bar. After denouncing Shelby's homosexual advances, Lee eventually gives in and the women become friends and eventually lovers. Shelby leaves her home to live with Lee in a rundown motel, drinking and partying all day long. It is during this time that Lee kills her first "customer", a man who drives her deep into the woods and proceeds to rape and beat her. This is the first and only of Lee's murders that can be considered self-defense. After her escape, Lee develops a pattern of shooting her johns and stealing their money and cars, until she is finally caught and sentenced to death.

The narrative structure of Jenkins' film is nothing special, and at times feels a bit repetitive, what with the numerous drunken bar excursions and hitch-hiking late at night. But any lag in the story is compensated for ten-fold by Theron's phenomenal performance. The weight gain alone shows committment, but just because one packs on the pounds for a role doesn't mean that the audience will buy into the psychological transformation necessary when a film's heroine is a serial killer. Theron's Lee is bold and fragile, fiercely protective of Shelby, but unsure at times of the direction her own life is heading. While it is almost impossible to make a film about a female serial killer without some degree of valorization, Lee isn't a completely sympathetic character. We understand that her life has been horrible since day one, but we don't excuse her murder spree along the humid Florida highway. Theron's ability to make us both fascinated and repulsed by her heroine is evidence of a huge step in the actress' career, away from just another pretty face and towards a serious dramatic player.

Posted by jordan at January 19, 2004 8:43 PM