Written and directed by Patty Jenkins
Starring Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci
Classification: 14A
Rating: ***

The hype around the film Monster is justified by the performance of Charlize Theron: The silky golden South African beauty of Cider House Rules and The Devil's Advocate plays the real-life Florida highway prostitute and convicted serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The performance partly belongs in the crass Hollywood tradition of stars getting ugly for Oscar, but Theron goes deeper than prosthetics and voluntary physical degradation to something more primal and disturbing.

This may be the quality Wuornos's defence attorney referred to when she called her client a "primitive, damaged child." Rather than attempting to nail down a character, Theron personifies someone who is constantly in flux and trying to figure out how to behave. From the clumsy way she holds her cigarette to the forward thrust of her belly, she seems to be struggling to find the right pose, perhaps imitating the men who have abused her, as if she could take their power.

The odd part is that Theron's outsized blend of swaggering bravado and eye-rolling panic stands apart from an otherwise by-the-numbers, true-crime movie. Wuornos picked up and murdered seven men in central Florida in the early nineties, and was put to death by lethal injection in October, 2002 (as a "volunteer" execution).

Her mixed motives for the killings appeared to be robbery and anti-male rage. The media sold her, inaccurately, as America's first female serial murderer, and her story has already been the subject of two death-row documentaries by Nick Broomfield, several books and an opera. Director Patty Jenkins's version follows a familiar American indie-film template -- a descent into the misfit hell and doomed romance of Boys Don't Cry, surrounded by dark clouds of oppression and brutal violence.

The story begins with the fateful meeting between Wuornos and her teenaged lesbian lover, here called Selby and played with a vacant schoolgirlish petulance by Christina Ricci. (Wuornos's real lover, Tyria Moore, was 24.)

Theron-as-Wuornos, who first appears soaked and dirty as she wanders by mistake into a lesbian bar, sure don't look like no movie star. Her voice slurs through a dental prosthetic that twists her mouth into a perpetual sneer. She gained 25 pounds for the role, which we witness when she strips off to wash in a gas-station restroom. Her hair is lank, overbleached and combed back in a mannish pompadour, with her eyebrows plucked naked to exaggerate her egg-shaped forehead. In truth, her appearance is considerably more alarming than that of the actual Wuornos (though Wuornos was more obviously insane).

The character of Selby remains a blank. Why she finds Aileen compelling isn't clear, though perhaps her butchy bravado looks like strength (Theron looms over Ricci). The two women drink, share a bed and agree to meet again. Soon they are careering around the crummy bars and roadside motels of central Florida, where it always seems to be night, and often rainy. The soundtrack music, too, feels sodden, from the overwrought heavy melody of Journey to the queasy bubblegum of Tommy James and the Shondells' Crimson and Clover for a love scene.

Shortly after Aileen meets her new love, she is viciously raped and ends up killing her attacker. She hides the body and takes the man's car and money. Then she resolves to give up prostitution and go straight, the better to care for her new girlfriend. She spends a day on the sidewalks, dressed in her own clumsy form of business attire, applying for jobs for which she has neither qualifications nor skills. After a day of sneers and closed doors -- the lawyers and employment clerks she meets rival the johns for rudeness -- she's soon back to the bar and then the highway. Now she's aggressively looking for evidence that the johns deserve to die. After a while, she gives up looking for reasons.

Though Monster is offered as a love story, it's a passion that remains at a distance. For a movie that concentrates so much on a universe of two, the ties between Aileen and Selby seem underdeveloped, and we are left (more with the murders than the brief sex scene) with a kind of sterile voyeurism. As angry, deluded, vulnerable and confused as Aileen is, the character remains an enigma. Apart from serving as an opportunity for Theron's emotionally deep-dredging performance, the movie doesn't know why it exists. Otherwise, Monster follows the path of recent films, from Mystic River to The House of Sand and Fog, toward the obligatory depressive ending. There's an implied affinity with the downbeat cinema of the sixties and seventies, with brief appearances by Bruce Dern (Coming Home) as a disillusioned Vietnam vet who understands Aileen's self-loathing, and Scott Wilson (In Cold Blood) as a good Samaritan who understands she's a victim, but only sees half the picture.

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