Director: Patty Jenkins
Writer: Patty Jenkins
Stars: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern
“Monster born or monster bred? It’s a question often asked. What causes a serial killer? Monster depicts Aileen Carol Wuornos as homemade, crafted straight from a childhood of abuse and triggered by the disillusionment of romantic love.”
Monster is not a pretty story. Abuse of Aileen Carol Wuornos – a serial highway killer of seven men in the 1980’s – began early, reducing a sweet child to a teenager desperate for affection and turning a hungry young woman into a dollar a night hooker. But, as Aileen (played by Oscar award winning actress, Charlize Theron) says, the real story all began one night in a bar when she met Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). She wasn’t looking for anything more than a beer but she was down to her last five bucks and in a strange, suicidal frame of mind. If life had anything to offer, it had better come soon.
But Monster is not only ugly, it’s scary because it’s not only about the deliberate murders of seven men by a crazed prostitute. It’s about something familiar exaggerated, taken to an extreme but still within the realm of sympathy for anyone who’s fallen in love and been betrayed. It’s about the way the dream of romantic love can turn to murderous rage when the illusion cracks. It can’t be said that Aileen was happy being a dollar a night hooker but it can be said that she was quiet. She accepted her fate, took her hard knocks, slept where she could and kept to herself. She only had one friend, a Vietnam vet (Bruce Dern) who sympathized with her post-traumatic plight. This was a woman who had long ago given up any idea that she could do any better.
Falling in love changed all that.
At a bar one night, she met Selby, a young lesbian who had struck out so many times that even attention from a hooker felt good. The two hit it off. Loneliness and cynicism had a drink, shared a cigarette and made an old-fashioned match. Lee, as Selby called her, was far from being a lesbian but they inspired each other to try for the dream. Regardless of gender preference, falling in love is a sure thing for igniting hope. Selby hoped she had found a woman to fulfill her smoldering desires. Aileen hoped she had found someone who wanted her for more than sex, someone who truly loved her.
They tumbled together in the bliss of new love and, for a few moments of eternity, enjoyed what had eluded them both. Love. Aileen felt emboldened to go out into the alien world of the workplace and apply for a job. She wanted to give up the sordid life of a hooker, make a normal life with Selby. But the more she interviewed, the more she looked into mirrors of rejection that exaggerated her abnormalities. The fantasy of a house on the beach, an SUV and the soft glow of candlelight that was sold, stamped and delivered in magazines, movies and billboards of romantic love was slipping away. It didn’t seem within the reach of a woman who couldn’t even get a filing job in an office.
So Aileen went to work at the only job she knew. And one night she slid into the open door of a car with a man that she knew instinctively was bad news and, in a scene too nightmarish to describe, was raped beyond her senses. Pent up rage from a lifetime of abuse broke loose and she, believing but not knowing for sure that he would kill her, blew her attacker to smithereens. Her fierce drive to return to the loving arms of Selby, not to die ripped apart on the seat of a car, turned Aileen into a murderer. And from that moment on, a fabricated monster woman took over. She no longer walked or talked in ordinary reality. She lived in frantic fear that Selby would leave her, continuing to kill with impunity the enemy of her obsession – any man with money in his pocket and on the road looking for sex. “He” represented what stood between her and normal life. And the murders that she committed in the name of that enemy stood between her and final despair.
Regardless of Aileen’s efforts, it wasn’t long until Selby was threatening to go back home. No money. No food. Nowhere to go. Aileen wasn’t living up to her promises. Desperate to keep Selby with her, Aileen hooked and murdered. She would fulfill their honeymoon dream with money. Money could buy happiness. It was the American way. She walked back onto the highways, took the ride offered – and shot the men behind the wheel. She turned more tricks than she’d ever turned before. She needed Selby to believe they could accumulate a big pile of money, enough to get them to dreamland. But the door to dreamland opened up a new door for Aileen, one that she wouldn’t have entered before. Risk. Going for the gold ring, she swung out a little farther than she would have when there was nothing at stake.
In one particularly poignant moment, Aileen sees Selby recoiling at the realization of her as a murderer. She pulls herself up into almost noble stance and, fighting back tears with grotesque grimaces, “I want you to know I’m a good person”. She attempts to separate the killing she’s done from a deserving self. The murders she committed in the name of that enemy who had stolen whatever little hope she’d been given for a few moments cannot be forgiven. But her effort to honor the love she felt for Selby was extraordinary and something audiences identified with, a wrenching picture of a survivor’s instinct after hope is gone. Aileen, at least the way this film tells it, held onto her love for Selby right up to the end in spite of the fact that she knew Selby had joined the police against her.
The film ends with Aileen shielding herself and Selby from the truth of betrayal. Monster, like Bride of Frankenstein, is a stiff reminder of the suppressed fear and anger that lie beneath a psyche pieced together from leftover, deadened body parts. Hope became a dangerous, explosive thing when placed into the already heavily damaged hands of Aileen Carol Wuornos. But the murderous rage, rising to the surface when hope was rallied, then rudely recalled, constitutes a dark reality of dreams punctured that goes further than a personal story.
Understanding how rage relates to the breakdown of an illusion in a film can provide insight into how it can happen to a society. In a recent essay in the Los Angeles Times, “Transplanted Democracy Will Wilt in Infertile Soil”, Shlomo Avineri argues impressively that a change in the Arab world must come incrementally, from the inside out. He warns that “To imagine Western-sponsored democracies flourishing anytime soon in the Arab world is a dangerous illusion, doomed to bring about violent resentment and rage against U.S. ” (Italics are added to the original text.) In other words, Americans should not fall in love with the idea that democracy is realizable without considerable healing in the Middle East. Arousing hopes of a quick democracy may have a paradoxical effect. Rage can be spurred by the break down of romantic illusions on a larger cultural level as well as on the personal. Unquiet times.