With her performance in “Monster,” Charlize Theron charges down the gates that have confined her to typecasting limbo and sets a new standard by which to measure her future work. In Patty Jenkins’ writing-directing debut, Theron plays Aileen Wuornos, the Florida prostitute who killed six men in the ’80s before she was caught and, in 2002, executed.

“Monster,” at heart, is not a slasher movie but a tortured love story between Wuornos and her teenage girlfriend, Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). Their relationship is a refuge from the despair in their separate lives: Wuornos’ lifelong degradation at the hands of men draws her to the affections of a female partner; Shelby, a lesbian, clings to Wuornos because she allows her the financial and sexual escape from the conservative stranglehold of her family.

The manipulative and desperate nature of their relationship is what kicks “Monster’s” narrative into gear. To ensure their cash flow, Selby cajoles the reluctant Wuornos into continuing to ply her trade. One night, in a fit of rage, Wuornos shoots the man who has just tortured and raped her. The trauma of this event takes her already dubious attitude to men into the realm of full-blown murderous hate.

Jenkins’ direction is assured throughout, but her opening scenes are the most powerful, depicting that sad, provincial America of trailer parks and roller rinks—that trashy, seedy outpost of frizzy hair and Journey ballads by which we are just as fascinated as depressed. As it goes, “Monster” gets increasingly bogged down in its more literal-minded melodrama, as Wuornos kills and steals, and the couple tries frantically to dodge the law. Jenkins’ ethereal early scenes are trampled over by hardworking but labored episodes of escalating tensions.

Between the two leads, Theron handily dominates. With the help of some weight gain and Tony G.’s masterful make-up effects, Theron’s transformation, down to her cocky strut and countrified twang, is startling. More than that is how confidently and naturally Theron humanizes a woman long-branded in the media as a monster. For her part, Ricci cannot reconcile Selby, the dreamy-eyed adolescent with Selby, the manipulative black widow, into a cohesive characterization. As a result, she stumbles along to Theron’s beat. Adding his salty, flint-eyed presence to the mix is Bruce Dern who graces the movie briefly as Thomas, Wuornos’ trusty father-figure.

“Monster” is a workhorse of a character study. Its plodding, sporadically effective script may not entice much, but it finds a haunting eloquence thanks to Theron’s lacerating, career-defining performance.

Grade: B

Written/Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Cast: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen, Annie Corley


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