MONSTER (Patty Jenkins, 2003)

I knew if I lived long enough I would eventually see a film so unremittingly stupid that it becomes almost an event. Monster, unwritten and undirected by Patty Jenkins, who should muster the mercy never to make another movie so long as she lives, deals with a Michigan-born highway prostitute who, stranded in Florida, becomes a serial killer, first, in self-defense and increasingly, later, in vengeful glee for all the male hands that have roughly touched her over the years. She ends up killing the sweetest john who ever cheated on his wife (Scott Wilson, in a touching performance). This gal is in the grip of a nasty compulsion.

She is also based on an actual person, whom the State of Florida put to death: Aileen Carol Wuomos, whose miserable history of abuse from childhood on, I have read, at least provided some context to the two documentaries about her that a filmmaker other than Jenkins, Nick Broomfield, has made. Jenkins isn’t big on context, and, as a result, what emerges is an uninflected, larger than life, and totally sympathetic portrait of someone none of us would ever have wanted to run into.

Indeed, given the elements of mise-en-scène at her disposal—ugly-ass U.S. highways, ugly-ass bars, ugly-ass motel rooms, ugly-ass concrete structures,—it is a reverse marvel that Jenkins can find no visual key to project a dehumanizing environment. Nor does she seem to possess the slightest interest in Wuomos’s potentially heartbreaking relationship with a young lesbian, called here Selby, who by shifts and turns emulates Wuomos and tries to snap her out of her delusional flights of evasive and optimistic fancy. The two fall in love, and this generates a bit of pathos, but Jenkins provides no sustained analysis of the contours of an unlikely, hence potentially fascinating, union. Jenkins hasn’t made a sensational film; that’s not the problem. Jenkins has made a rudderless film. We learn next to nothing about Wuomos.

Charlize Theron won an Oscar and numerous other prizes for playing Wuomos. As far as I know, Theron has never given a bad performance, and she doesn’t give one here. Her impersonation of Wuomos, for which she gained thirty pounds and is heavily made up, is astute, and every now and then Theron strikes an aching chord; but Jenkins has given her nothing to play, in effect. Theron’s deep empathy for Wuomos is ultimately to no avail, because, brainlessly coasting, Jenkins cannot come up with any sort of context that might suggest some thematic purpose to all that we are asked to endure in watching this foul-mouthed, dead-end film. Perhaps Jenkins believes that Wuomos’s most garish, self-serving speech, in which she justifies her killing spree on the basis of political or religious serial murder (by which she may mean war), clarifies something or other. But this is simply tossed into the script; it connects with nothing else. And we have confronted this potentially interesting idea in a film where it is more seriously and thoughtfully pursued: Charles Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947). Wuomos’s utterance, which doesn’t even seem to belong to the character, is unhelpful and irritating.

Chaplin’s black comedy is (intentionally) funnier. Jenkins’s film is ridiculous.

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