Charlize Theron in Monster.
This is a review of a movie that is now four years old. Recent events have
made me decide to add a few comments on the movie anyway.
Monster (2003) is loosely based on the life of Aileen Wuornos, a woman
convicted of killing six people in the 1990s. And I would like to emphasize
that word "loosely." The story line of the movie differs from the actual
account in significant ways. And it is the fictionalized story that I address
here. These are just comments about a movie, not a piece of journalism on
the Wuornos case.
As the story opens, Aileen (Charlize Theron) is working as a prostitute
in Florida. She meets up with Selby (Christina Ricci), and the two find
they are attracted to each other. They go out on a date together and the
relationship quickly heats up. For Selby, her relationship with Aileen
represents the first time she has been able to openly express her
homosexuality. For Aileen, Selby is someone who cares about her and
accepts her. Selby is staying at a foster home and is due to return home
to her father. Instead, she decides to pack a suitcase and take up with
Aileen tries to get out of prostitution. She goes out on the job market
and does some interviews. Unfortunately, she has a rather unrealistic
view of what her options are. She also has a bad temper, and is liable
to lash out at the slightest provocation, real or imagined. Which of
course doesn't help things. Finally, she decides to go back to prostitution.
It is the only job she has ever had, and as she admits she is good at it.
Out turning a trick one night, the john takes her to a remote woods. He
quickly becomes abusive and beats her. He then ties her up and rapes
her. Aileen manages to free herself. She finds his gun. Full of pain and
rage, she empties six rounds into him. She then sets fire to his body
and takes off with his cash and his car.
Aileen and Selby have their ups and downs, just like most couples. At
the end of an argument one night, Aileen tells Selby about the killing.
Selby is shocked by her confession, but stays with Aileen anyway.
Aileen goes back to turning tricks. But things have changed since the
murder. She purposely baits her johns in order to hear what she wants to
hear. Eventually, she ends up killing six men. She saves the newspaper
clippings of their deaths in a little box. But the emotional intensity
of this movie and the centering on Theron's character are such that you
find yourself in several instances feeling there is some sort of logic
or justice behind the killings. And even where there is no justice behind
them, you find yourself sympathizing with Aileen's distress if not her
actions. That is how deeply the movie draws you in.
Theron's performance is sometimes a tad over the top, but in general is
superb. And this is coming from someone who doesn't ordinarily like
Theron in her roles. There is one scene in particular that stands out.
Aileen and Selby have gone to an amusement park. They take the ferris
wheel — just the type of ride that frightened Aileen when she was young
(the movie is titled after an amusement park ride) — and Aileen finds
herself enjoying the experience. Sitting with Selby, holding hands, she
smiles. And there is just so much communicated by that one smile. In my
opinion, that one smile alone justifies the Oscar that Theron received.
As I watched the movie, I kept thinking back to an English class I took
in my Junior year of high school in which my teacher tried to hammer
into us the difference between tragedy and pathos. I wish I had listened
a little bit better, because I kept going back and forth between the
two. As I remember, she taught a rather Nietzschean view of tragedy:
Tragedy occurs when unhappy events occur that are out of our control.
In other words, tragedy is of the gods or fate. Pathos, on the other hand,
is when unhappy events occur that are within our power to control or
which are the result of our own choices.
And there is a lot of talk about choices in this movie. Aileen tells
Selby at one point in the story of how she was raped as a child, and of
how she has never had any choice in what she has done since. There is
another scene in which the character Thomas, played by Bruce Dern,
perhaps the only real friend Aileen has, tells her that he had no choice
in going to Vietnam or the consequences it had upon him afterwards.
There is also a scene in which Selby's step-mother tells her that everyone
has choices, and that not everyone who had an unhappy childhood ends up as
a prostitute. Sometimes we have no choice. And sometimes we do, and — all
consideration of not "blaming the victim" taken into account — we simply
make bad ones. The former is tragedy; the later, pathos. That is also
the basis for our concept of conscience and of ethics.
Aileen's childhood was certainly a tragedy. And the circumstances
surrounding Aileen's first victim borders on the tragic also. But as
Heraklitus once wrote, a man's character is his fate, and as for the
rest it can be said that perhaps the best way to achieve healing for
the past or empowerment in the present is not to go around murdering
people. And the social services network that might have allowed a person
like Aileen to escape their past and move on to a better future was not
exactly absent in 1990.
Nevertheless the social contract does not work perfectly. It is obvious
that there are people in society who fall into the cracks. In the end,
Aileen's life is both tragic and pathetic. And it is not always as clear
as English teachers or philosophers would convey just where the boundary
line between the two falls.