Why Didn't Kimberly Peirce Direct This
What the hell has Kimberly Peirce been doing the last five
years? And why the hell didn't she rescue Monster?
This movie wants so badly to be Boys Don't Cry--writer
and director Patty Jenkins even cribs the roller rink scenes
from her. The key difference in the two approaches seems to
be that Jenkins has a pat explanation for Aileen Wuornos,
but in Boys Don't Cry, Peirce focuses so intently on
the characters as human beings that she didn't over-rationalize
them into a symbolic psychological explanation for Teena Brandon's
gender-bending. As Peirce said in an interview about her film,
"The negative can be so powerful, especially on film.
My goal was always: Don't judge the characters and don't diminish
the characters -- make their motivations as rich and as true
to real-life people as possible." Teena just is who she
is--the issue is not how she came to be, but how she reacts
and is reacted to.
She lets the story unfold like tragic poem, a Romeo and
Juliet for small-town Nebraska. More than any other movie
that's ventured into Nowheres Town in the last decade, she
avoids cliché and cartoon, just letting the natural
surroundings be the story's poetry. Peirce doesn't look at
Falls City's underbelly with condescension (it's important
to note that this single screwed up family unit does not have
to stand for the whole town); she empathizes us to the characters'
emotions, but upon closer reading, there's a beautiful lyricism
to the film too. The relentless hum of the factory where Lana
works could be the soul-crushing monotony of her life; lightning
streaks across the sky as the fortnight romance accelerates
toward a tragic end; angry young man drink beer and set tissues
on fire just to watch them burn. Her portraits are so convincing
that we can't help but sympathize with Teena and Lana, even
though we know they're doomed--who can't sympathize with star-crossed
lovers who are blind to their own desires (Peirce catches
the two staring into the headlights of an old beat-up Ford)?
They're classic characters--poetic in their familiarity, deepened
by the intimate portrait of their culture.
The best way to try to understand stories as complicated
as Teena Brandon's and Aileen Wuornos' require the sensitivity
and insight of the artist. Whole teams of analytical psychologists
can reflective question until their hearts' content, but the
best they can do is shovel textbook explanations into broad
profiles. The artist, though, can develop a fully, more intimate
portrait of innately familiar but unique characters. We relate
to them intuitively, but they're given depth and complexity
by being plugged into local circumstance. Not every girl with
a sexual identity crisis does what Teena did, so there must
be something in the combination of temperament, environment,
and circumstance that drove these events. Peirce's Teena Brandon
is a romantic, delusional young girl (whom we sense has a
tragic past without it being rubbed in our faces) who falls
in with the wrong crowd at the wrong time, with the details
of the encounter driving the emotions and the action.
The problem with Monster is that Patty Jenkins hasn't
the same deft feel for character to handle these sensitive
issues. The relationship between the two girls doesn't seem
to be based on anything more than a single encounter in a
bar. What keeps them together? Why does Selby follow Aileen?
Jenkins offers the pat explanation that Aileen is a mother
to Selby, but the characters aren't measured well enough for
this to work. Ricci plays Selby as far too weak and childish
to take the big risks she does on Aileen. Ricci's attempts
at developing a wild side in Selby come off like a teenager
taking her first drink. She doesn't display an adventurous
enough spirit to sell the audience that she might actually
risk her existence to follow Aileen--contrast to Boys Don't
Cry, where we see Teena's life as hopeless, and she fights
her way into Lana's confidence and remains there by her sensitivity.
Here, Selby's life doesn't seem at all hopeless, and she seems
way too conservative to take the risk on Aileen. And Aileen
shows herself a motivated protector, but why would she consider
Selby an attractive mate? Yes, there are moments of kindness
and tenderness, but Aileen is a survivor first--after all
the exploitation she's suffered, would she really be that
easy to throw her trust to anyone, even if they offered her
a bed? Perhaps, but Aileen is a survivor who turns into a
killer, and something here doesn't quite add up.
Yes, on paper you can draw these psychological profiles and
have this make some sense, but on film, the characters don't
feel right. Jenkins has her explanation, it seems, and she
shovels the story into it. Because the film lacks individualized
emotional logic, it comes off like Jenkins is arguing that
Wuornos' killing is just the natural extension of her rape.
This is not to say that had she been a better drawn character
that her killing would have been justified, but at least it
would have played as a believable portrait of evil--a wounded
soul gone tragically wrong. In fact, Jenkins' vision of Wuornos
is that men were so, so mean to her that they deserved what
they got. Because we never see Wuornos react in a personal,
intimate setting with a man she knows, we have no way to gauge
her reaction to these sleaze-talking johns. In fact, they
are not really men at all, but stand-ins for All Men. And
boy, does Monster hate them, and that's Jenkins' explanation
for Aileen Wuornos: Men are mean, so she takes on a virtually
incestual-maternal relationship in response, thus her motherly,
protective instinct propels her to kill. That sounds too much
like an apology for me to be comfortable with the movie.
To contrast, Boys Don't Cry doesn't hate men--it hates
hate. From Peirce's interview with Michael Sragrow at Salon.com:
Peirce hopes that the roughhouse camaraderie of John and
Tom takes in audiences as totally as Brandon. She wants us
to see the sadistic fun in risky activities like "bumper skiing,"
in which a "skier" balances on the back of a moving pickup
truck while holding onto a line connected to the cab. Peirce
trusts that if her method works, when the sadism begins to
dominate, "Everyone watching is in as much denial as Brandon."
She didn't want the film to play as an essay on "the culture
of violence," but as a tragedy of men who are so crippled
in their resources, external and internal, that they, like
Brandon, must struggle to confirm their manhood. Says Peirce:
"When you contrast these guys with Brandon, his existence
becomes a critique of what it means to limit the imagination.
Brandon turns out to be better than them at being a guy; it's
a double blow when they discover he's a girl."
Watching Monster, I never got the sense that Patty
Jenkins really worked out the story of Aileen Wuornos to such
depth. So what could she have done with this story? I wish
I knew--all I know is that this movie fails Charlize Theron's
performance. We've all heard about it, and yes, the physical
transformation is amazing. But Theron has developed a walk
for Wuornos that tells the world to fuck right off. She uses
her shoulders to project strength--she swaggers through a
roughneck bar with her whole body. As much as she seems out
of place interviewing for jobs, she's perfectly suited for
that habitat. Charlize is so convincing physically that she,
at times, persuades us emotionally.
I don't feel entirely comfortable making this statement,
but I think Theron's personal story (she witnessed her mother
kill her father) gives her an insight into this character
no other female actor might have managed. Her Wuornos is a
monster, for sure, but there's a human in there. Theron plays
to Jenkins' maternally-based explanation, and she has command
of the scenes that are supposed to humanize her. This is the
easy part, relatively speaking, because anyone who has ever
seen a tape of Wuornos knows that her defining feature are
her eyes--eyes that bulge damn near out of her head, eyes
wide open to the evils of the world, eyes that are truly a
window to an insane soul. Theron deserves the Oscar simply
because she has the eyes. But the movie itself deserves nothing
because the auteur has the wrong notion of what's held in
those eyes. This material is so sensitive that it needed a
female director to rise to Theron's commitment. The only person
with the feel for this sort of material hasn't made a movie
in five years. Where are you Kimberly?