DVD Review of Monster
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/28/05
It was about five years after its release that a good friend of mine finally talked me into coming over to his place to watch the film Schindler’s List. His wife was away on business, and he offered free pizza, so I relented. I had resisted the urge to see Steven Spielberg’s schlocksterpiece because I knew, from both Spielberg’s intellectually thin corpus and the reviews I read, that the film was gonna be a disaster of a PC screed. It was, distorting facts- which are not so bad if in service to great art, but more importantly, oversimplifying the good and bad guys, giving no motivations to its main characters, and basically trying to state the most obvious things in its condescension to the viewers. I was right- 100% right, in my view of what the film was, although I might argue that it was even worse than I expected.
This same level of dread filled me as I finally relented to seeing the DVD of the 2003 film of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, in which South African Charlize Theron tries to impersonate the South Floridian monster of the title. I resisted for many of the same reasons that I did the Spielberg film, as well the hyperbolic declaration, on the DVD’s cover, that Theron’s work was ‘one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.’ Now, I know Ebert always leads with his heart and he is to film criticism what Lassie is to a wolfpack, but I also knew that the film had to be bad. After all, it was only a year earlier that an uglified Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for her portrayal as Virginia Woolf in the horrid The Hours. There always seems to be an automatic bias toward rewarding portrayals of uglies or retards with Oscars- think Forrest Gump, Charly, Rain Man, and many others. Yet, how is it that automatically limiting the range of a character is seen as somehow stretching oneself?
Such is the case in this repugnant film- and I call it not repugnant for its content, nor its Feminist hero-making out of a known liar and lesbian killer, but because it uses every conceivable cliché of the genre in this horrendously written script by first time filmmaker Patty Jenkins, who bleats out the usual ‘art is truth’ and the desire for a ‘deeper truth’ on the DVD features and featurette. The film looks down upon its viewers with such contempt that I am puzzled that few reviewers noted this. But, before I give a summary of the film, let me turn to the acting of the two leads in the film. Ricci, as the fictive Selby Wall, Aileen’s lesbian lover, does her usual terrible playing of her whiny, adolescent self throughout. Perhaps it’s her bulbous, wide-eyed fetushead look, but the girl has an emotional range from A to a. Theron, as Aileen, however, never acts, and I state that not in the ‘she was so good I couldn’t tell she wasn’t acting’ way, but the false teeth and makeup on her face limits her expressions, and everything she says consists of bulging her eyes, barking her lines, and constantly twitching and ticking- what I call shake and make(up) acting. Don’t believe me? Imagine the real Theron acting in the role without the makeup- would it be ‘acting’ or ridiculous mannerisms? She gained thirty pounds for the role, but, so what? There was no real reason for it, unlike Robert De Niro’s Jake La Motta portrayal in Raging Bull, where it was needed to delineate how far a well known athlete had fallen- to fat Vaudevillian. As with Kidman’s nose it was done to help a) a limited actress ‘connect with her subject and b) help an even more limited American audience now so stupefied by Hollywood’s pap factory that they have lost all imagination. A c) could be added that the makeup allows Theron to really phone in her impression of Aileen, rather than act her from the inside out. The truth is that the ugliness of Aileen Wuornos lay in her deeds, not her body, but the film doesn’t want to go there, unlike Roman Polanski’s 1965 masterpiece repulsion, where the psycho-killer is a gorgeous Catherine Deneuve. She was a true psychopath, and insane, but this is never addressed by the film. Of course, to Hollywooders her cellulite-laden thighs ARE the real tragedy- and tragedy at its highest! In the DVD extras Theron claims this lack of acting, and plethora of tic imitating is because she studied hours of tapes of the real Wuornos, but this also gives a convenient excuse to not rally dig into motivation, beyond the tripe that is served up- she had a hard life and men took advantage of her. Stop for a second, and imagine the reaction from Feminists if a film on Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy, or the Yorkshire Ripper, were to allege that they had suffered at the hands of their mothers and potential female objects of affection. Now, you may see why the film is also repugnant from its very raison d’etre.
However, since art is NOT about truth, if the actual tale told were good, and insights in Wuornos given, the film could win me over. The tale: Aileen is at her wit’s end, at film’s start. She meets Selby, a recovering Christian Fundamentalist, they fall in love, and make out in an alleyway outside a skating rink as Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ blares. This cheesy scene could have been the entrée to a budding farce, in the hands of a better filmmaker, for all its 1980s angsty John Hughes feel. Instead, it sticks out as another pointless scene that does not illuminate this pointless relationship, save to show that another Hollywood film is saying ‘Lesbians are cool, ain’t they?’ It also adds to the time confusion in the film. The scene plays out as if in the late 80s, but Aileen’s crimes were in the early to mid 80s, yet the characters have modern cordless telephones. Anyway, the two then go off on a Badlands like rampage, with Selby emotionally compelling Aileen to murder her johns, after first denying that Aileen was killing. The first death occurs right after they meet. Aileen is viciously beaten and bound by her john, in the woods, and then breaks free and kills him with his own gun. Now, in reality, she was not bound, and the claims of attempted rape were a cover that was exposed, yet apparently the film’s search for ‘deeper truth’ abnegates ‘factual truth’. Again, imagine Jeffrey Dahmer claiming some little Asian male prostitute beat the crap out of him, so he pickled and ate him in revenge- we’d be cheering his demise a mile away. Not so with Rambaileena. Now, dramatically, the reason for this lie to exist is clear- it is to show Aileen as the Avenging Angel for the put upon prostitutes of the world. Of course, drug-addled streetwalkers like her are only the visible ten or fifteen percent of prostitutes, but no matter. Does the feint work? No. She’s a killer, and proves this as she carries on with more murders, as Selby first is ‘horrified’- Ricci’s fetal gaze at full vacuity, then goads Aileen to do more, to procure her love. Aileen is then shown as compassionate (therefore sympathetic) when she spares the life of a fat, stuttering virginal john, who is polite, and thanks her for a handjob. Aileen is also remorseful when she kills a retired cop, and Selby crashes a stolen car they are riding in, thereby almost giving themselves away. Then there is the scene designed to win the Oscar- where Aileen kills a kindly man who picks her up with no intention of sex, and offers her help. As she leaves her gun falls out of her purse, and the dope gives it back to her, and she then kills it, weeping as she says she cannot not kill him. It’s one of those scenes meant for that ‘deeper truth’ that is unintentionally hilarious. Soon, Shelby leaves her, turns her in, and Aileen gets bitch at her trial, before being forced to walk down death row and, ugh!, into the light. The end is so nauseating and predictable it makes a left wing tearjerker like Dead Man Walking seem deep by comparison.
Two films stuck out in my mind: Angels With Dirty Faces, the 1930s gangster flick with Jimmy Cagney, where he is a gangster on death row who, at film’s end, pretends to be a coward to help deter the Dead End Kids from a life of crime, and the 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver, also about a lowlife driven to mass murder. Yet, there are important differences. Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, is a good looking, average Joe, who drives a cab. While we are not shown any of his past, Martin Scorsese, a far superior director, wisely just limns his background, at certain points throughout the film- he’s a Vietnam vet with issues, who writes delusional tales of his life to his parents, cannot understand why the girl he loves unrequitedly does not like porno flicks, and is a bigot. But, the breaking point that sends him on the way to attempted assassination and mass murder is a small event- a rejection by his lady love on a cheap pay telephone, as the camera pans away, down a shitty hallway. In Monster, Aileen’s background is not shown, merely described by her- in short, her prostitution, drug abuse, insanity, and violence are all the fault of men and her turning point is the bondage and attempted rape, which, even if it were true, does not serve the melodrama, because clearly, there was something off in Aileen far before. Thus, the film lacks mystery and a psychological hook- it wants us to sympathize with Aileen, not understand her- and that’s a huge difference. Also, think of the scene in his apartment, where Travis Bickle trains to be an assassin- the fist over the stove fire, his ‘You talkin’ to me?’ in the mirror, and his lazy pushing over of the tv with his foot, until it breaks. All of these comment very slyly on the American longing for celebrity and recognition. Travis has been denied this, and resents this, yet ends up a hero, celebrated for his violence. This is still one of the more devastating political indictments of America on film. Nearly 30 years later, however, Monster doesn’t get it, as it is not an indictment of American flaws in capitalism and celebrity worship, rather its opposite, as it exploits America’s propensity for capitalizing on every horror and making heroes out of evil people. And any defense of it based upon the later film being based on reality, not fiction, does not wash since the Aileen Wuornos of the film is every bit as fictive a character as Travis Bickle is.
As if my case against this film as terrible art and worse docudrama isn’t strong enough, consider Bruce Dern’s phone din performance as a Bickle-like Vietnam vet named Thomas who sympathizes with Aileen because he sees them as alike, even though, by then, he knows she’s a killer, and is trying to steer her away from the cops. He’s a total fiction. I have to wonder why this piece of trash was made. Ok, a quick and easy Oscar for Theron, but there is no insight, and all the film does is further delude so-called feminists into thinking that a Battered Woman Defense is applicable every time a woman does evil. And this is the film’s greatest flaw, vis-à-vis Taxi Driver, and other great films that explore killers. It refuses to deal with the idea of evil. Aileen’s problems are the fault of everyone but Aileen, even as she sabotages her very own attempts to ‘improve’ herself with a respectable job.
In short, Monster may have been a passable film had it been good art, or at least attempted to portray the true story of Aileen Wuornos. Instead, it fails miserably on both scores, content to have an ABC Afterschool Special like patina in its approach. I also, after viewing this film, know another reason why I wanted to not see it, and that’s because after two years of this unjust and wasteful war of invasion President Bush launched in Iraq I did not want to be reminded that sometimes even the reactionary Right Wing Radicals can still be right about something; and that is only a deluded out of touch Hollywood Feminazi sympathizers could serve up such crap, and then fete it ceaselessly. This is one of those films and performances that in ten or so years people will cringe at as being one of the worst selections ever. Let me be the first to say it- Theron’s award winning performance is one of the worst to ever win an Oscar- it is not deep, nor scary, and even lacks the essential redeeming silliness of a Hannibal Lecter or Freddy Krueger. This film is one of those that people are just agog at, and so at odds with the Hollywood machine and its fawning parade of acolyte critics, that no one has the guts to say it’s terrible. And, worst of all, every time I think about the film, and Theron’s performance, it slides down another notch in my mind, just like so-called feminists who see a hero in Aileen Wuornos. That said, the Monster referred to in the title of the film most aptly applies to the film itself. Avoid this tripe!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 8/05 Hackwriters website.]
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