Little girls might dream of becoming glamorous movie stars, but glamorous movie stars apparently dream of playing the kind of grungy, deeply disturbed rabble most folks would walk across the street to avoid. Anti-heroines don't come much grungier than Aileen Wuornos, a dirt-poor longtime highway hooker who challenged gender stereotypes by breaking into what was previously considered an all-male field. Unfortunately for the luckless tricks who became her victims, that field happened to be serial killing. In the sympathetic new biopic Monster, Wuornos is played by first-time producer Charlize Theron, a former model as known for her movie-star looks and famous boyfriends as her acting. Theron's revelatory lead performance here should change that. Nearly unrecognizable thanks to stringy hair, oily skin, an unflattering wardrobe, and thin, creepy, almost transparent eyebrows, Theron brings a feral intensity to Monster, effectively transforming herself into someone whose plain looks and boyish figure wouldn't turn heads at even the cheapest roadside bar. As the film opens, Theron is at yet another all-time low, but her situation peaks when she meets Christina Ricci, a naïve budding lesbian whose ultra-religious family refuses to accept her sexual orientation. After a nasty encounter with a sadistic trick ends with Theron's first murder, she tries desperately to go straight, only to be faced with a damning catch-22. The world won't accept Theron because she's never been anything but a cut-rate prostitute, and she's never been anything but a cut-rate prostitute in part because the world won't accept her. Desperate and in love, a downward-spiraling Theron begins killing her tricks, considering every man who picks her up guilty until proven innocent. Serial-killer biopics invariably play to audiences' prurient instincts and morbid fascination with criminals who routinely violate laws everyone else considers sacred. Monster contains an element of that dynamic, but it's more concerned with understanding Wuornos than exploiting her. Though overwhelmingly empathetic, Monster doesn't go so far as to reclaim Wuornos as a feminist avenger, but issues of class and gender lie close to the surface. In her feature-film debut, writer-director Patty Jenkins combines the gritty, claustrophobic neo-realism of Dahmer with the unlikely gutter romanticism of Boys Don't Cry, creating a haunting portrait of how a person can feel so desperate and hopeless that murdering for a few crumpled bills and maybe a beat-up car can begin to seem like a reasonable option.
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