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A dime’s thickness could not fit between the closeness of Charlize Theron’s caricature of Aileen and the real Aileen. Instead, 13 years separate her in Patty Jenkin’s debut film ‘Monster,’ from Nick Broomfield’s 1992 documentary ‘Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer’. Theron disappears into the fat and freckles of her character.
To see Aileen in her underwear in a gas station bathroom, combing back perfectly stringy eighties hair, looking forward to a possible second date at a roller rink — that is to gape at the mouth with the jaw closed. This woman in this squalid state startles both sympathy and repulsion from the audience. Why does she even preen? What chance does she have at beauty? Despite her foul situation, Aileen is making a dash toward joy, and this defiance out-stuns any advertisement of the beautiful.
Christina Ricci’s performance, as Aileen’s beloved Selby Wall, in contrast to Theron’s, seems at best quiet or sweet and at worst vague. For the most part Ricci resigns to the part of the foil. Aileen meets Selby in a bar. Or as Aileen says, “by the time I met Selby Wall, shit, all I wanted was a beer.” Selby offers Aileen some beer, she rejects the offer, and their romance begins. Aileen responds to Selby’s caring look with a loving clench, and Selby responds to being loved with curiosity, gratitude and shenanigans. In the end Selby testifies against Aileen.
Both women identify with the position of being bound. Selby bears an injured arm and a cast that prevents her from getting the job that pays for some independence. Her family seems intent upon fixing her life — “sometimes you’ll want a roof over your head, even if it means sleeping with a man” advises her parent’s friend — whereas she shelters a sexuality that conflicts with the straight path. When Aileen offers her a week of getting-away, Selby takes it. They move into a hotel, and the soundtrack offers ‘Crimson and Clover’ for the love scene — a good offer.
Aileen’s bonded-ness reveals itself early. She takes up prostitution at 13 and has walked the streets for just about her entire life. In her later years of hooking, a customer with a very red neck ties her up to his vehicle door and forces a pipe into her. After Aileen breaks the ropes, this man becomes the first in a chain of seven victims. But this time, the audience might forgive her. She has vindicated herself against a person of vulgar morality. Aileen’s motive springs from self-defense, a case Theron knows well from her own family. Theron recently gave an interview with Diane Sawyer about her girlhood experience, seeing her mother shoot her father in self-defense.
Aileen’s first murder awakens a sense of punitive justice from inside her — about society’s final condemnation of hookers, about girls handed over to prostitution because of domestic abuse and poverty — and she distributes it. She gains unwanted infamy as a serial killer. Her last victims suffer not for their own misdeeds as much as Aileen’s vanity. In playing the role of a god, or a demon, she judges her own plans and hopes superior to others’. She kills a man who offers her kindness because he has seen both her face and her gun. Her religion of judgment becomes a rat’s maze of survival. Says Aileen, “I feel like I never had a —-ing choice.”
It seems a shame that ‘Monster’s release just missed the deadline for the 2003 Academy Awards — a shame that Theron’s Aileen might slip into a forgotten pile of performances for the next Best Actress. She deserves a nomination, and not just because of her major cosmetic deformation. Each pound of what she put on for her role translates directly into gain for the film.