Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 05, 2004 3:38 pm 
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Dark journey: brilliant performance

This recreation of a Florida female serial killer’s true story is nasty, brutish, and short. Yet the movie is one to be seen, for both the strength of the acting and the originality of the material.

The film and the acting have been compared to Hilary Swank and Boys Don’t Cry. Both performances are remarkable works of sympathy and embodiment involving real life stories of lesbian relationships. But Swank’s character was a young woman who made herself into an attractive young man and her brutal end was sweetened for her because Teena Brandon/Brandon Teena achieved, if briefly, the bliss of living a lifelong dream. Aileen Wuornos (Theron) is a beat-up, weather-beaten women who never achieves more than a few moments of happiness, and who instead is hell-bent on shaping her own doom.

We first encounter Wuornos when she meets her soon-to-be female companion and lover Selby (Christina Ricci) in a Florida lesbian dive bar. Down to her last few dollars, the suicidal Lee, who lives the grim life of a car hooker, hooks up with Selby: The meeting begins the one tender relationship she will ever have.

Briefly we see her make pathetic stabs at finding a better life, but her grim appearance and her instant rages make her a hopeless job interview. Paradoxically, the newfound power of being in love leads to Lee’s doom; it emboldens her to kill so she and her girlfriend can live better.

The narrative slides from bar to motel to vile rental house to car sex and death scene as the movie rushes headlong toward a disaster engineered by Wuornos, with Selby in tow. Aside from a few moments when the cinematography turns a damp twilight into an instant of dark poetry, the movie offers few grace notes. It’s relentless. All the roadside pickups are shot in the same dark, damp twilight. The cinematography could have been less monotonous; but at least it has the virtue of highlighting Theron’s performance and underlining the claustrophobia of the life.

People exclaim at the pretty Theron’s physical transformation and this is the great novelty of the film. In movies like The Astronaut’s Wife and The Italian Job and James Gray’s excellent, brooding The Yards, Theron plays the dewy-eyed, shapely blonde a young man wants to have on his arm. How did she become this prematurely aged, broken-down wreck of a woman? The actress underwent lengthy makeup sessions and prepared for the role by putting on 35 pounds. She learned to mimic the way the real Wuornos looked and moved by watching footage of interviews used in the documentary, Aileen: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

In her embodiment of Wuornos, Theron walks and stands with shoulders and head back, chest out, legs spread, hair flipped back like a mane; mouth turned down, eyes frowning and glaring, face a succession of pouts and grins. Her foul-mouthed patter pours out of her uncontrollably. From her first moment onscreen she’s a doomed life force, sputtering with nervous energy and self-destructive menace. It’s not only an amazing embodiment, it’s hypnotically watchable.

Typical of the detractors, one of the Voice’s clever-hip flacks describes this as “an Oscar-angling performance that swings from muscularly sympathetic to pre-Extreme Makeover crass. . . the bulked-up, butch-struttin', perma-frownin' Theron is poised to ride the tribulations of state-executed Florida prostitute and john-snuffing serial killer Aileen Wuornos straight to Slingbladin' Hilary Swankdom.” That’s clever, isn’t it? But so mean spirited it needs no comment. More thoughtfully, veteran film critic Michael Sragow recently wrote in commenting on the Oscars that, “the Academy tends to over-value performers who break with established images (like Charlize Theron in Monster) or adopt disguises (like Nicole Kidman in The Hours) or accents (like Meryl Streep in anything). And the Academy tends to undervalue performers who dig deep into their own personalities and screen personae and find something revelatory and new.”

That’s true, and it’s the underlying reason why people downgrade Theron’s inspired work in Monster to a blatant Oscar bid. That's a big mistake. The Academy’s biases shouldn’t be allowed to detract from Theron’s accomplishment. Neither Monster nor Boys Don’t Cry is just a screen test to show off an acting tour de force. Monster isn’t as strong a film as Boys Don’t Cry, but it too is a brilliant collaboration between director and actors with a thoroughly involving screenplay.

It’s been said that Ricci’s acting is inadequate and weakens the movie. That's another mistake. Ricci thoroughly understands her character. Selby is a nervous, shy, weak person, only 18 when the movie begins and struggling to find an identity. With Lee she becomes a kvetch, a passive-aggressive detractor, while she needily clings to Lee and her un-keep-able promises. She’s terribly insecure and naive. Ricci doesn’t inject any unwonted irony or sophistication into Selby. It’s a real and touching, yet chilling, performance – as well as a selfless and perceptive one.

Bruce Dern, as Lee Wuornos’ one friend, a ravaged, alcoholic Vietnam veteran, manages to seem a good deal less mannered and quirky and more sympathetic than has sometimes been the case in past roles. Minor characters – the succession of johns and victims – are disturbingly authentic.

There’s a terrible compulsion about watching this movie. The two lead actresses (despite Ricci’s more familiar look) are breathtakingly authentic. Lee believes men are beasts and from her angle it looks that way: her first kill is a particularly evil, violent man who would have killed her. Eventually we see her murder a gentle soul who only wanted to help her. She’s on a roller coaster ride now, acting out her terrible anger at men and life. Her murders are also robberies and for a while Lee and Selby feel rich. Eventually Lee unknowingly kills a cop and from then on she’s unable to cover her tracks. Selby escapes prosecution by ratting on her lover and companion.

That’s it: this is an ugly, sad story, worth watching for the feat of acting that will earn Charlize Theron lasting recognition, and for a look at the darkest side of life.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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