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Charlize's Devil: Charlize Theron hides her perfect features in order to portray serial killer Aileen Wournos in 'Monster.'

Dead Girl Walking

The selling of a serial killer: Charlize Theron dresses down to play Aileen Wournos

By Richard von Busack

CHARLIZE THERON has done an amazing job in her masquerade as Aileen Wournos. The impersonation includes hard, brown contact lenses, shaved eyebrows, prosthetic teeth and skin marred with the sort of disfiguring freckles popularly associated with bullies. In film after film, Theron has coasted on her beauty; it was brave of her to really tear that beauty down and transform herself from a silk purse into a sow's ear. In Monster, Theron plays the noted female serial killer and prostitute who roamed the Florida highways, claiming seven male victims. Wournos' story is that she was defending herself from rapists after a lifetime of abuse.

Monster takes up this hard-drinking drifter's story through her love affair with a budding lesbian, Selby (Christina Ricci), who was sent down to Florida to live with relatives after the secret of her sexuality came out. The two make a bad combination. Selby's demands for money and entertainment lead "Lee" to trick with strangers. As the murders increase, Aileen spins out of control, growing more ruthless. Even Selby becomes frightened of her, running for cover.

If Monster were an independent film starring an unknown named Charlene Theron, the film likely would have garnered a different reception. That a lead actress is slumming makes all the difference. First-time director Patty Jenkins takes in the actual locations in forlorn central Florida, but she doesn't blend the performances. They're mostly flat, and Jenkins stands aside while Bruce Dern hams it up, representing solidarity between Vietnam vets and killer prostitutes--they both understand how the world works. A scene at a law office where Aileen has applied for a job is madly overdone. On the plus side, Wournos' victims become more humanized as the film goes on. And there's even a grudging pro-sex worker side to the film in a sequence where Pruitt Taylor Vince of Heavy turns up for a painful-looking hand job.

As seen in Nick Broomfield's 1992 documentary Serial Killer: The Selling of Aileen Wournos, Wournos is a figure upon whom the world is eager to superimpose its feelings. The real Wournos suffered serious grievances and very eccentric legal aid, and there was a minor scandal over police profiteering from her case. Broomfield's documentary is recommended, if just to see that quiet authority with which Wournos was Wournos. By contrast, Theron plays her as a misunderstood hostile woman whom she, as an actress, understands in a way society can't. Then you read the press notes, where Theron says of Wournos, "She's the most hopeful person I've ever encountered. ... She was always looking for the silver lining on the clouds, that ray of light." None of that hopefulness made it onto the screen.

The definition of a B-picture: a movie that says a person with bad luck has the choice of being a murderer or a hypocrite. In one of Broomfield's interviews with Wournos, she says she feared people who "make me look like a monster." Watching Theron pop her eyes, the reaction isn't "but for the grace of God, I could have been this woman." It's more like "God, get this woman off the streets."


Monster (R; 110 min.), directed and written by Patty Jenkins, photographed by Stephen Bernstein and starring Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.


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From the January 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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