Monster is the type of film that takes you on an emotional roller coaster. I remember watching it years ago thinking that I would be left scandalized by this real-life story of a serial killer but instead I found myself never feeling that way; in fact, I was surprised that I felt sympathy towards Aileen Wuornos. Not only did Charlize Theron embody Wuornos physically, but she also searched beneath the surface to give a multilayered performance of this complex person. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that wouldn’t have been possible without the direction of Patty Jenkins.
A lot of us will get our first introduction to Jenkins’ filmography with Wonder Woman but her directional debut Monster (which was also her only feature-length film before Wonder Woman) is a haunting portrait of an irreversibly damaged woman. The fact that this was her first film speaks volumes to the dedication that she had to telling this story truthfully.
Although Wuornos was a serial killer, she was also a victim of her abusive environment. The film doesn’t start with her pointing a gun at someone, it starts with her contemplating pointing the gun at herself. She decides to spend her last money on a drink before killing herself and that’s where she meets Selby (based on Tyria Moore), her eventual love interest and the reason why she doesn’t commit suicide. There’s an interesting parallel between these two characters; they couldn’t be more different but their loneliness is what gravitates them towards each other.
Aileen has been constantly abused and treated as a subhuman because she’s a prostitute, while Selby is closeted and unable to be herself in a racist and homophobic household. Selby doesn’t seek a relationship at first, she just wants someone to talk to and Aileen has a lot to say but no one listens. The two jump headfirst into a relationship and while reckless, their need for affection is what drove them together.
Theron received rightful praise and accolades for her portrayal as Wuornos but Christina Ricci’s performance as her sheltered but observant girlfriend is just as great. At first glance, one would dismiss Selby as naïve or childish for running off with a woman she hardly knows but she wasn’t getting everywhere living with people who were too closed-minded to understand her. She is naïve but in Alieen, she sees a way to escape and be herself. Before they leave, Aileen tells her that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity—she can’t know unless she tries. Selby hesitates at the thought of doing something as drastic as this but accepts, unaware that Aileen is running away because she’s killed someone.
The most unsettling thing about the film is that there’s a build up to the murders, there’s a reason why Aileen decided to kill. Just watching the first act of the film, you would think that the story is an unlikely romance between two women but Aileen has had pent up anger for years. According to her real-life testimony, the first man she killed sexually assaulted her so Jenkins translated that to the film. It’s a stark difference from a few scenes earlier where Aileen and Selby are still in the honeymoon stages of their relationship.
Aileen tries to shelter Selby from real-world problems by running off with her to live at a hotel and spending stolen money on dinners and alcohol. It’s nice at first, but Selby has always been a realist. Aileen vows to never prostitute again after killing her first victim and Selby asks her what will she do to support them. “I’ll be a veterinarian…be president!” Selby goes along with her but not before telling Aileen that she would need a degree to be a veterinarian. Selby often serves as a reminder of the reality that Aileen is in. Despite endless job hunting, Aileen is still mistreated and her anger towards the world and towards men only continues to intensify. She realizes that she can’t be a veterinarian, she can’t be president. The only way she can make money is to prostitute herself and that’s what leads to her kill again.
When Aileen finally reveals to Selby that she killed someone, she expects Selby to leave because everyone in her life has always abandoned her. Instead, Selby wraps her arms around her and allows Aileen to cry into her lap. Despite committing this terrible crime, Selby is still there for her. She understands that at this point, she’s in over her head but how can she leave someone who’s been just as lonely as her? Even when Selby tries to break away from Aileen’s overbearing protection—much like she did with her own family—she always ends up back with Aileen because unlike her family, they both give each other the support that they need.
Aileen may have killed in self-defense at first, but she eventually kills out of rage. She starts to project her anger onto innocent people and that’s what leads to her demise. She even goes to the point of provoking men to hurt her so she has a reason to kill them. The film is able to acknowledge that although she was a victim, she still made the decision to murder people. Death was always on her mind—instead of killing herself, she decided to kill others. Why did she have to suffer for the pain that the world has caused her? Why can’t she hurt men in the same way that they hurt her?
These internal questions are clear while watching the film and it was Jenkins’ intention. It wasn’t until I saw the film again and started reading interviews that I found out that Jenkins actually corresponded with Wuornos through letters. No wonder she was able to understand her so well; she had something better than books and documentaries—she had Wuornos herself who was open to telling her what was going through her mind.
Although not innocent, Aileen still cared deeply for Selby—the one person she’s ever loved. Even when Selby has to work with the police in order to incriminate Aileen, she confesses to committing the murders alone to protect Selby. There’s a tragedy in their relationship ending this way, but Aileen always knew this was coming. Monster may be a film about a serial killer, but that isn’t the focus. Aileen and Selby’s relationship was prioritized above the rest and that’s why we’re left with such a strong emotional reaction during the film. We don’t expect to feel anything towards a murderer but Jenkins was able to craft a story where we do feel sympathy and we don’t feel bad for doing so.
Monster was originally supposed to be a high-sensation, straight-to-video kind of film but after communicating with Wuornos, Jenkins realized that she couldn’t tell her story like that. Approaching Wuornos as a human being and not a cheap form of entertainment is what makes Monster such a profound film. Jenkins, who also wrote the script, was able to create a haunting story led by incredible performances and looking back on the film today, it feels very underrated. For all the praise that it received, I can’t help but wonder why a filmmaker as passionate as Jenkins hadn’t made another feature film until now.
Of course, the answer is obvious. This is Hollywood, an industry dominated by men. But seeing Patty Jenkins back fourteen years later with Wonder Woman is exciting. This is an artist that’s already proven herself to understand complex characters because she’s an actor’s director. I saw that with Monster and I see it now with Wonder Woman. It’s still surreal knowing that we’re actually getting a Wonder Woman film in two weeks but do yourself a favor and watch Monster first. While difficult to watch, it’s a masterpiece of character breakdown and needs to forever be acknowledged for that.