Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”
I've seen voyeuristic exploitation. This is not voyeuristic exploitation. "Monster" (the true story of Aileen Wuornos) digs into the sordid life of its serial-killing prostitute heroine with an unflinching eye, but unlike "Dahmer" and "Ed Gein" and other films of the burgeoning little subgenre, it is genuinely interested in its protagonist's soul and not just the demons that torment her. I'd call this film closer to "Boys Don't Cry" in its empathetic portrait of a doomed, ugly life.
The best scenes are, understandably, the love scenes. They reach that certain magical exuberance to which most romantic films aspire but only one or two a year achieve. I expect this to be the only film I ever see in which the most uplifting scene is accomplished with a Journey song. The scenes in which Wuornos kills her johns are repetitive and mostly boring; I take that as indication that the director's heart wasn't in them. Mine sure isn't. I have watched plenty of scenes of someone murdering someone else, but I have never watched a woman quite like Aileen Wuornos. The scenes where she desperately tries to calm the gathering storm in her lover's worried eyes are the best.
The film has gotten the most attention for its acting, and rightfully so. Theron's performance has been praised far and wide, and indeed she embodies this unique, bizarre creature utterly and completely. There is never a moment, a nanosecond, when we can see the actress behind the character. The effect is that Wuornos, who was of course a fascinating real person, becomes a real person on screen instead of a character, a vehicle for the plot or actress. Watching Theron's viruoso scenes in this film, it occurred to me that I've been wrong to disapprove of acting-showcase scenes in ambitious films; those moments when the film stops so that the actor or actress can deliver a wrenching monologue perfectly timed for a clip in the Academy Awards broadcast. When a rock song stops so that the guitarist or drummer can play a solo, does that cheapen the song by stroking the musician's ego? No, not usually; it's as much about singular effect as it is about taking a moment to recognize the supreme talent of the musician. When "Monster" stops periodically for a monologue from Theron, it is not to say "wow, lookit dat girl act!" but to achieve an effect that it has gone to great lengths to set up. I don't know if this is one of the greatest performances in film history (unlike the man who said it I'm not qualified to say), but it is one of the greatest performances I have ever witnessed.
To me, the controversial performance is Christina Ricci. There are two schools of thought on her unconvincingly line deliveries: That Ricci is simply not good enough to handle the material, or that she is correctly playing a character who is lying and not very good at it. I'm inclined to believe the second, but I admit the possibility of the first. Regardless, when Ricci's authenticity cracks and we can clearly glimpse the actress at work, it hurts the scene. Of the other actors, the johns are particularly good in their brief scenes, and it was a treat to see an actor who so frequently plays serial killers himself here play victim to one (though I suppose he already did in "Natural Born Killers").
Other comments: How did Selby's mother-figure recognize that Aileen was a prostitute, in the approximately one second they saw each other? Necessary for the plot, yes, but hard to believe. Also, I was disappointed to see another cliché of films about doomed, downtrodden lives, when the victim has the car window down and is making waves in the rushing air with her hand. As a symbol of daydreaming about freedom (flying away as a bird?), it has been just about exhausted by now.
I recommend "Monster" absolutely. It's one of the best films of 2004. The lead performance makes it a must-see, but the high it generates in its best scenes is a valuable experience in itself. If it is not too late for you, see this film in a movie theater! Do not wait for the DVD! I say this because the soundtrack needs to encompass you, and the giant screen needs the tiny nuances of Toni G's makeup and Charlize Theron's expressions to give you the full effect of the main character's face. No matter how or where you see this film, do see it; it's remarkable.