Monster” thrusts unto us the brutal story of Aileen Wuornos, a drifter prostitute who, after being convicted of killing six of her johns, was christened “America’s first female serial killer.” The film’s release is quite timely because the real-life Wuornos, who sat on death row for more than a decade, was executed last October in Florida.
Director Patty Jenkins attempts to tear away Wuornos’ demonized mask by foregrounding the liberating lesbian love affair she had during the 1989-90 murders and by illustrating the devastating circumstances of her life. The film’s most harrowing example of the brutality she endured is its graphic depiction of the rape that provoked her first killing. It’s a scene that will be burned into your memory.
But beyond the amazing bit of empathy we are compelled to feel for Wuornos, and not to mention Charlize Theron’s “Raging Bull”-like performance as the convicted murderer, this film could have taken its probing eye much further.
A smarter film might have aspired to engage the viewer on a more evocative level, one where a love story wasn’t at the center of Wuornos’ tragic life. The director’s interest in galvanizing Wuornos’ whirlwind relationship, while quite moving, pulls the film away from exploring the more complex issues that brought the depleted woman to her eventual end.
So while the film does do an adequate job of making sense of Wuornos’ situation, it does so in too straightforward a manner. There are scenes of Wuornos briefly describing the physical abuse and rape that plagued her childhood and also crushing depictions of the hooker lifestyle. In order to strengthen the film’s convictions, though, its makers might have chosen to highlight the system that created Wuornos and allowed her to live such a debauched existence. With the material the filmmakers were given – a woman executed for surviving a lifetime of rape and abuse and then retaliating through similar, vicious means – this was a chance to take a clear shot at the oppressive, patriarchal machine that orders the society from which Wuornos was spewed. When we think about Aileen Wuornos’ case, it’s the system we should really be calling monster. But with barely any emphasis on the court system that chose to execute her and an only average attempt at engaging the viewer in understanding how patriarchy crushed her, we’re left with a well-crafted tragedy that spent too much effort on its love story.