Monster

Starring:
  • This Year's Halle Berry
  • Wednesday Addams
  • Rage Against the Penis

 

 
Directed by Larryville Lesbian Rage

"Charlize, are you sure you don't want to research this whole lesbian thing back at the director's trailer?"

Why Didn't Kimberly Peirce Direct This Movie?

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?

The Pitch:
1 Boys Don't Cry
Plus
 
1 "The Railroad Killer" Angel Maturino Resendez
Equals
 
2 Monster
See It For:

Charlize consoles Ricci after they tell her that Prozac Nation is never going to be released.