As a child growing up in the impoverished sticks of Florida, Aileen heard tell of silver linings and "all you need is love" from the adults in her life. Not all of those adults raped her. But at least one of them did, when she was 8, and when Aileen told her Dad what his buddy had done, he didn't believe her.
She gave her first child up for adoption five years later. She took to the streets, hooking for money. She drifted. She did some jail time. She sat by the side of a highway on a rainy night, contemplating suicide. And then Aileen (Charlize Theron) wandered into a gay bar and met Selby (Christina Ricci), an Ohio girl sent to live with some good solid middle-class religious racists in Florida after her parents caught her making out with another girl.
This setup would be enough for any drama about an impossible romance between two lost souls, one an emerging young lesbian, the other a woman willing to try anything just to experience love. But Patty Jenkins' Monster is the true story of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who died in Florida's electric chair in 2002. Jenkins presents Aileen's first killing as classic self-defense: Tied up in a car, tortured with a steel pipe, Aileen breaks free and furiously executes her assailant, a trick gone bad. The next one also deserves it: He's a child molester, Aileen reasons, because he wanted her to call him "Daddy" during sex. As for the others -- well, Aileen needed money to support herself and Selby. And besides, her life has taught her that the world is a brutal place anyway, and so she's "good with the Lord" in all that she does.
This should be horrifying stuff, but somehow, it isn't quite. Unlike the landmark crime-spree drama Badlands, or even the recent Boy Don't Cry, another story of sexual identity and the working class, Monster feels more like sociology, and as Aileen's autobiography emerges in narrated snippets, she becomes a social problem much more than a moment in cultural history. It doesn't help that Jenkins overscores her movie with pseudo-dirges, twangy instrumentals and pop love ballads intended, I suppose, to comment ironically on the way Aileen clings to her long-ago-shattered belief in happy endings.
Theron has received good notice for her decision to portray Aileen, a tough gal with yellow teeth and leathery, sun-worn skin (some very good makeup achieves this effect). Often enough her acting here is withdrawn, introspective and fine. But just as often she seems to be flying blind in the hands of a permissive, inexperienced director. Theron's best work (including The Cider House Rules) has an unforced melancholy that doesn't seem to fit her Pond's good looks. In Monster, she feels artificial in her howl and stagger, like she didn't really inhabit this character -- as if she possibly could.