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CREATURES OF CIRCUMSTANCE

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Lesbian-hooker-killer: Real-life multiple murderer Aileen wournos is portrayed by Charlize Theron in Monster. (courtesy photo)

Does 'Monster' feed on lurid misogynistic fantasies of femmes fatales?

Desperate to persuade Selby Wall (Ricci), a lonely gamine she meets in a bar, to spend a week with her, Aileen Wournos insists: "You'll never meet someone like me again." She is right, and, instead of returning to her father in Ohio, Wall joins Wournos at a seedy motel in Daytona Beach. The fact that few moviegoers are likely to meet someone like Wournos again accounts for the power of Monster to compel us to spend a couple of hours with a serial killer. Monster is a horror show intensified by an opening announcement that it is based on a true story: a spiteful woman's homicidal spree. Between 1989 and 1990, Wournos, a 33-year-old hooker who worked the roads of Florida for $30 tricks, shot six of her johns to death. The story was earlier told in two documentaries by Nick Broomfield.

In the cheery voiceover that frames Patty Jenkins' film, Wournos (Theron) recalls a childhood ride on a Ferris wheel called "The Monster" that made her feel so dizzy she threw up. It is a metaphor for an entire vertiginous life. Raped by her father's friend, prostituting herself by age 9, and on her own by age 13, Wournos has, by the time she stumbles out of the rain and into the opening scene, been around the wheel several times. Monster itself is a fun-park attraction that induces less amusement than nausea.

Monster refuses to put together a coherent case for whether Wournos and Wall should be held accountable for their odious actions or regarded as creatures of circumstance, monsters created by a commodity culture in which love, like cash, is just another four-letter word.
"I'm a real good person," claims Wournos, despite the ruthlessness with which she dispatches her victims. One gentle man is not seeking sexual favors, and for no reason but compassion offers to help her out. Yet she draws a gun, and, ignoring his tearful pleas, puts a bullet through his head. Wournos is motivated in part by revenge against all mankind and in part by a desire to prove her love to Wall. Until things careen into chaos, she is convinced she is in control, and can change her life at will. "You know what I always wanted to be?" she asks Wall. "President of the United States." Although Wournos would not be the first chief executive to have been a killer or a prostitute, her naïve ambition exposes the terminal innocence of a multiple murderer.

"We have no business with people like that," says Donna (Corley), a church-going matron who provides runaway Wall with a room in her home. Donna is appalled that her young guest is spending time with a homeless lesbian hustler. Yet beneath Wall's treacly veneer of vulnerability, which moves Wournos to parent her, lurks a selfish, pitiless predator. We in the audience have no business with people like either Wournos or Wall, except that nothing that is human should be alien. Jenkins' achievement is to create a portrait of two monsters that is riveting from beery beginning to grim ending. A spectacular performance by Charlize Theron, who reportedly put on 30 pounds and prosthetic teeth to impersonate Wournos, gives life to Monster. She commands the screen whenever she is on it, which is nearly every moment.

Monster

Dir. & writ. Patty Jenkins; feat. Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen, Annie Corley (R)
Monster is a freak show that forces us to recognize we belong to the same species as the miscreants caught on camera. "I always wanted to be in the movies," declares Wournos at the beginning, and in that at least she certainly succeeds. This is a disturbing film, but I am troubled not just by the gruesome events it graphically recounts. Monster is a woman's film, made by and about women, but in choosing to focus on a rare female killer rather than the thousands of men who have committed even more hideous crimes, is it feeding on lurid misogynistic fantasies of femmes fatales? Is it suggesting that lesbianism, prostitution, and homicide are all inevitably linked? Slumming among hapless characters who cannot get their acts together, Monster refuses to put together a coherent case for whether Wournos and Wall should be held accountable for their odious actions or regarded as creatures of circumstance, monsters created by a commodity culture in which love, like cash, is just another four-letter word. The film concludes with the announcement that Wournos was executed by the state of Florida on October 9, 2002. However, it takes no position on whether capital punishment is appropriate or effective.

Gazing at Wournos' sorry existence, we think: There but for fortune go you or I. It is a comforting thought, but the comfort evaporates on second thought. Is Monster just an exercise in voyeurism, vicarious titillation from lives we would not dare to lead? Does it succeed by massaging our self-esteem, offering a privileged chance to moon at the misbegotten? Is the veritable monster anyone who makes or views Monster? •


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