Back in 1999 when the press dismissed Charlize Theron as merely “arm candy” for Third Eye Blind’s frontman, the starlet’s rocker ex indignantly insisted, “She’s a very important actress!” Seemed silly at the time, but it turns out that with Monster, our brave Amazonian has taken up the challenge of Hollywood’s “importance” regimen. It is not for the superficially vain. A grander, more spiritual vanity is required. If you’re willing to glug a few hundred cans of Ensure, wear prosthetic teeth, conjure terminal impairment/homosexuality, and dredge up an OxyContin-slurred drawl that would scare the banjo off the inbred Deliverance boy, importance can be yours. And thus, with an Oscar-angling performance that swings from muscularly sympathetic to pre-Extreme Makeover crass, the bulked-up, butch-struttin’, perma-frownin’ Theron is poised to ride the tribulations of state-executed Florida prostitute and john-snuffing serial killer Aileen Wuornos straight to Slingbladin’ Hilary Swankdom.
While on death row, the real Wuornos was the subject of two documentaries by Nick Broomfield, who, with typically pushy sympathy, plumbed the details of her horrific Michigan upbringing, life as a runaway in a neighborhood wilderness park, repeated abandonment, and torturous exploitation before and after landing in the Sunshine State. Patty Jenkins’s screenplay forgoes this setup, revealing only snippets as she zooms in on the fevered slice of 1989-90 when Wuornos took up with a lover and would-be soul mate, here called Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), and commenced the fateful series of murder-robberies motivated, as it’s suggested here, by a mix of self-defense, transferred retribution, moral vigilantism, and financial desperation. These miasmic impulses are nearly impossible to convey without the aid of backstory, and we, like new acquaintance Wall, remain on the outside looking in. And since Jenkins and Ricci never allow Wall to become more than a curious cipher with a Billy Idol sneer—a tabula rasa for her murderous new lover’s Bonnie and Clyde escape fantasies—our outsider vantage makes for an ultimately unsatisfying voyeurism.
Ricci’s voice and demeanor still give her that weird, first-cigarette, 15-year-old presence, making her gay-bar-gadabout character seem like a high school freshman walking on the curfew-flouting wild side. And often Theron’s impressively flabby, jowly form towers so hulkingly over Ricci’s smothered imp that their voracious (but strangely truncated) hookups seem stunt-double precarious. Nonetheless, despite Theron’s “Ah luhv yew” white-trashisms and huffy dyke-itude, her torrential whiplash rage, blank-eyed destruction, and shrieking release during Wuornos’s increasingly indiscriminate back-road murders peel out and leave the stiffly brazen ingenue of Celebrity in the dust. It’s in these moments that Theron’s empathetic victim-wrath and elemental female outrage almost trump the otherwise cartoonish gender-bending and award-grubbing po’ folk put-on.