On the way home the other night, after seeing Monster, I thought of three ways to begin this review:
In my series on movies last year I asked for the best performances ever by men and women. For men, it was easy to name a few iconic roles I’d seen. There was Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Robert De Niro in Raging Bull and Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day;, just to name a few.
For women, it was tougher, perhaps because of the dearth of good roles in Hollywood for the female of the species. About the only woman I could put on the list (without cheating) was Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves.
There is this thing that happened in popular culture—and I suppose it’s not entirely Julia Roberts’s fault—where by we have come to view prostitution as glamorous, maybe even empowering, in a post-feminist sort of way. I never bought into all that, but I was one who felt that there wasn’t a great deal of logic in banning prostitution, other than self-interest of communities not wanting it going on in their neighborhood. I saw prostitution, as if not a victimless crime, at least something between consenting adults.
There is something that happens to little girls who are abused that they never quite get over. If I ever get my act together I’m going to write extensively on this subject, because there is nothing I feel more strongly about. There is vulnerability there, so often exploited, that many times ruins these girls’ lives before they ever get started.
I have long wished to see a film portray this honestly and realistically, one that doesn’t end up being cloying in a Lifetime-Movie-of-the-week sort of way. I’ve never seen that sort of movie.
I’ve had a very difficult time writing about this film. It’s easy to talk about the acting, which is everything you may have heard and then some (more on that in a moment). And it’s easy to evaluate the cinematic experience of the movie itself (more on that in a minute too).
I think the reason I had such a difficult time, though, is how the movie affected me emotionally. It made me so angry, I wanted to hit somebody.
First the obligatories: Monster is a biopic on the life of Aileen “Lee” Wuaronos, dubbed “America’s first serial killer.” There are two documentaries about her, one now in theatres and one on video, and there is plenty of information on the web. If you need more specifics than she was a prostitute who killed seven people and was executed two years ago, look it up yourself.
The movie itself is difficult to watch for several reasons. One is obviously the subject matter, although that didn’t bother me all that much. The sex and murder is downplayed, but the mere fact of it will upset some. No, this film was difficult because of the issues it brought up.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Some have called this movie the best of the year, and I think that’s wrong. In my opinion, the movie itself does not live up to the performances or the subject matter. Nonetheless, because of those two things, I understand the accolades, and I would say to anyone who loves movies and is not dissuaded by difficult things, Monster will be one of the most important movies you ever see, and on that alone I heartily recommend it.
Let’s talk about why I saw the film, the Oscar nomination for Charlize Theron. Like I wrote about, this truly is an awe-inspiring performance. Forget all the weight gain and prosthetics. I was mesmerized by Theron every second. She was the reason I was so uncomfortable: Theron’s “Lee” was so uncomfortable herself on screen. It creeped me out. And the eyes…chilling, but not in a “face-of-evil” sort of way more than just the way she saw the world.
Christina Ricci plays “Selby” the girl Lee has a relationship with, and she too deserved an Oscar nomination.
Monster portrayed prostitution the way it really is for most women: as a last resort backed into when there seems to be no other options. The idea that women control the situation and use men to get their money and feel attractive may be true in some circles, but for most hookers out there, especially the cheap kind, this is what it’s closer to: much less emphasis on sexiness and much more on desperation and avoiding violence, when possible. After you see this film, you will at the very least want to discuss prostitution, and perhaps see it in a new light.
Finally, this movie gets to heart of what it means to fuck up a girl’s life. I’m not saying that every girl who’s abused will be a serial killer, but I liked how the film pulled no punches with the realism of what happens to someone beaten up by life and without the coping mechanisms to help her get though it.
Monster doesn’t glorify the crimes Lee commits. In the end, it doesn’t even fully explain them. (Unless you’ve been there, how could you?) What it does is show us this girl, the abuse she faces, the wrong choices she makes, the life full of misery and heartache, and then that same girl finding a bit of happiness, and what that girl might do to keep it.
We love to think that evil is just born different, straight out of the womb (like Stewie on Family Guy), ready to pillage and destroy. Most of the time the truth is far more mundane and chilling: the people we call Monsters are not born evil, and truth be told are not that much different from us. They are people crushed early in life, who never get over it, make bad choices, and continue the Downward Spiral that their life seems inexorably headed towards.
As I watched Lee, I didn’t sympathize with her, or feel she was justified in her actions. But I could empathize, if for nothing else, that little girl who never had a chance. That she grew up to become a killer is both sad and tragic to me, and something I intend to do something about one day.
But first things first: go see the film.
Suspension of Disbelief Index: 0.0 This is realer than real.
Genre Grade: Biopic: B+. One could wish for more texture and background in Lee’s life, but this covered the heart of the matter.
Pantheon Percentile: 92. This is not the greatest made film ever, but it will stay with me to the end of my days.