Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos
Christina Ricci as Selby Wall
Bruce Dern as Thomas
Scott Wilson as Horton (Last John)
Pruitt Taylor Vince as Gene (Stuttering John)
Lee Tergesen as Vincent Corey
Annie Corley as Donna Tentler
Marco St. John as Evan
Bubba Baker as Cubby
Marc Macaulay as Will Grueser
Brett Rice as Charles

In October 2002, Aileen Wuornos was sentenced to death by the State of Florida for the murder of six men, including a police officer. Monster, the first movie by Patty Jenkins, takes a look at Aileen’s life and the events that led up to the murders and her arrest.

Charlize Theron, last seen as the only woman in The Italian Job, plays the angry and troubled woman, who turns to a life of prostitution after a childhood full of abuse. She is near the bottom of a deep descent into the emotional abyss when she meets Selby Wall, a na├»ve and shy young lesbian played by Christina Ricci. The two become fast friends and Aileen falls for her, which causes problems for Selby’s religious father, who does not approve of their relationship. As Aileen tries to court Selby and win her over, she is brutally raped and tortured by a client. Turning the tables, Aileen shoots the man, beginning a string of similar murders.

The raves for Theron’s Oscar caliber performance have not been exaggerated. Her portrayal of Aileen is equal parts Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry and Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, and it’s as powerful as both. It’s a very different role from the types that Theron usually plays, and she’s almost unrecognizable as she spends most of the film sporting a scowl and a manly swagger. She even gained weight for the role, making her normally svelte figure look dumpier, much like the body of a normal woman from her background might have. While the physical changes are notable-a combination of make-up and acting–it’s the range of emotions that Theron brings to the role that makes the character so riveting. The way she is able to go from self-deprecating humor to anger in a matter of seconds makes one realize what a complex person Wuornos must have been.

Monster mainly focuses on the codependent relationship between Aileen and Selby, with Theron and Ricci appearing in almost every scene. Aileen’s brutal anger about her trouble-filled life is counterbalanced by a complete change of personality whenever she’s around Selby. These are the few times where we see her attempt a smile, something fairly frightening in itself. It doesn’t take long for things to go wrong between the two, as Selby is unsupportive of Aileen’s decisions; after Aileen is beaten and wants to quit hooking, Selby uses her control over Aileen to force her to do many things she doesn’t seem to really want to do.

Ricci’s performance as the spoiled and confused young woman is fine, but it’s a bit one-dimensional compared to Theron’s. Ricci tends to be whiny, rather than emotional, and it’s hard for one to sympathize with her, due to her spoiled and pampered nature, and the way she uses Aileen’s love against her. By the end of the film, you almost wonder which one of them is the “monster” of the title. Veteran actor Bruce Dern does a better job in a small role as Aileen’s only true friend, a Vietnam veteran who is more understanding of her situation than others.

The nature of the film makes it dark and jarring at times, yet there are some amusing moments that keep the movie from getting too heavy, especially when Aileen tries to get a job in the real world. Aileen’s dealings with her clients are also often punctuated with humor to help lighten the brutal violence that always seems on the verge of striking.

Patty Jenkins’ script is excellent, helping to bring Aileen to life with brilliant dialogue and a stirring first person narrative that opens and closes the movie. The narrative works well, and it’s used sparingly enough that it adds to the experience rather than distracts from it. There is never any true justification given for some of Aileen’s actions, except for her love for Selby and desire to provide for her. That said, the viewer is allowed to feel compassion for Aileen and her situation, even when it’s obvious that she has lost complete control of her actions.

In a year full of human dramas about characters that aren’t 100% perfect or even likeable, Monster has personality that isn’t as immediate in some of the other films, thanks to Theron’s portrayal of an amazingly complex character. Theron turns this “monster” into a one-woman “Beauty and the Beast”, a daring and challenging role that should do for her what Taxi Driver‘ Travis Bickle did for DeNiro, and making Monster a movie you won’t forget anytime soon.

Monster opened in New York last week, and it expands to other cities this coming weekend and over the course of January and February. Also, be on the look out for Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, the related documentary by noted filmmaker Nick Bromfield, which opens in New York on January 9th.