An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · December 25, 2019, 12:55 AM EST

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on August 9, 2007, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Monster isn’t a horror film, even as much of one as other entries in the recent spate of true-serial-killer features, but it does occupy an interesting place in this pantheon when thought of in genre terms. If some of the best horror movies throughout history have been those that ask us to sympathize with their monsters, then this Monster fits right in. Thanks to feature first-timer Patty Jenkins’ well-thought-out script and direction and especially to Charlize Theron’s standout performance, their subject, the late serial killer Aileen Wuornos, commands both fear and compassion.

Evoking the latter is a tricky business when it comes to documenting events that actually occurred and claimed real-life victims. Last year, Dahmer won praise for making its protagonist a fully dimensional figure the audience could empathize with, but its makers dealt with the thorny problem of his many horrible crimes by practically ignoring them altogether. Jenkins takes the more challenging route of addressing both Wuornos’ human and murderous sides, and succeeds admirably.

Much has been made of the deglamorizing Theron underwent for the role, and certainly anyone familiar with her usual radiance will be startled upon first seeing her here. With the help of makeup artist Toni G. (a member of Rick Baker’s team, who remarkably used paints but not prosthetics, other than fake teeth), the actress becomes literally unrecognizable, as blemished on her face as her character is emotionally. Theron nails those emotions too, creating a portrait of a woman for whom murder is not so much an immoral choice but the inevitable end result of a damaged life. When she kills, it’s somehow understandable, yet not excusable; Aileen is a prostitute, and though her victims are johns, Jenkins doesn’t take the easy way out of suggesting that they’re getting what they deserve.

An exception is the redneck creep whose violent rape of Aileen results in his becoming her first victim; though the assault is more violent and upsetting than any of the murders, the setpiece’s ultimate emotional payoff is more tragic than cathartic. Most of the rest of the slain men are depicted with just as much sympathy as she is; one even offers her help at a point when she no longer can or will allow herself to accept it. As a result, their deaths pack more terror than the slayings of faceless victims in many other psycho-killer films, both fictional and fact-based.

There’s a lot more to Monster than Aileen’s crimes, though. The bulk of the story is given over to her relationship with Selby (Christina Ricci), a lonely young lesbian who has been just as wounded by life as Aileen, and for whom Aileen represents an escape from her oppressive home life. The two fall in love as much out of necessity as because of attraction, and their turbulent relationship is as compelling as the violent side of the story. Unfairly overlooked amidst the storm of buzz and advance praise for Theron’s performance, Ricci is equally good, and in some ways had the greater challenge. Where Aileen acts out, Selby keeps her troubles deep within, and the emotion Ricci communicates through a simple glance or expression is sometimes heartbreaking. Other than Bruce Dern, in fine form as the one man Aileen allows herself to trust, the male cast mostly have small roles as her oppressors or her targets (including, a bit distractingly, special guest victims Pruitt Taylor Vince and Scott Wilson). Genre fans will appreciate a brief appearance by Kane Hodder, who also coordinated the film’s stunts, as a biker dude.

Working on many of the actual Florida locations where Wuornos’ exploits took place, Jenkins creates a palpable feeling of gritty, squalid suburbia, and evokes the late-’80s period via well-chosen details and music. She aims for realism but not docudrama; there’s never a sense that she’s exploiting her subject’s ripped-from-yesterday’s-headlines status to grab the audience. (As a bit of a distancing effect, her protagonist’s full name is never mentioned; she’s only addressed on screen as “Lee.”) In the course of this approach, Jenkins may not have crafted a traditional psychochiller, but Monster does rack up a high body count—because as Jenkins sees the story, everybody involved was a victim.