The Serial Killer as Victim


With Monster, writer/director Patty Jenkins has fashioned a story of insistent, persistent desperation that is so fully embodied by Charlize Theron that I had a hard time believing the movie’s politics and psychology were so facile.

The main character is mostly interesting, complex, and real, yet the main story — about how white-trash prostitute Aileen is transformed into a murderer — falls back on an explanation so easy and cheap that it made my jaw drop.

Monster tells the audience at the outset that it’s based on a true story — a favorite crutch for filmmakers who don’t want to be held responsible for the content of their movies. The real-life Aileen — who was executed in 2002 — claimed that she killed six men in self-defense, and Jenkins seems to buy that line, ignoring that this woman clearly fit a serial-killer profile and that serial killers don’t murder out of self-defense.

Theron won a deserved Oscar for her turn as a hooker so starved for positive attention that she latches on to lesbian Selby (Christina Ricci) and will do pretty much anything to keep her. This includes killing johns and taking their cars and money.

Aileen doesn’t seem like much of a lesbian; she comes off as asexual, with a body that she’s pretty much divorced from her brain. She needs virtually nothing to survive physically and can endure whatever she puts her body through, but she is among the emotionally neediest people on the planet, grabbing at whatever glimmer of hope she can see.

As serial killers go, she’s of the “disorganized, asocial offender” variety, and from her crimes she gains a measure of power (in the form of money and transportation) and control (by skewing the prostitute-john dynamic in her favor). The power is particularly important, because it gives her the means to support Selby, who has a broken arm and doesn’t seem particularly interested in work, anyway.

Much attention was lavished on Theron’s lack of vanity in the movie, and indeed she looks like shit at every moment. But I was struck more by the way she believably creates Aileen’s fevered anxiety both in gesture and expression. This woman is never at rest, fueled at all times by dread and fear and almost certainly mental illness. Abuse she can handle; abandonment is another issue entirely.

Theron’s is a great performance, and Aileen is potentially a great character. But the movie itself is sadly simple. Although Monster’s conception and performance of Aileen are rich and full, Jenkins tries to explain and rationalize — and even justify — her killing spree.

Aileen, you see, became a serial killer because a john mistreated her. When she wouldn’t go down on him — he’d only paid for a fuck — he knocked her unconscious, tied her up, and was going to rape her. When she got her hands free, she pulled a gun and shot him.

There is no doubt that the guy got what he deserved. And Aileen in voiceover talks about a history of childhood abuse, both physical and sexual. Those things obviously played roles in her becoming a serial killer.

But the movie takes it several steps further. After she’s killed the john, one of her clients is so nervous and polite that she gives him a handjob, takes her fee, and lets him live. The next guy? Well, his behavior has panic-inducing hints of the abusive john, so he gets killed.

Jenkins comes close to making the appalling argument that Aileen is some type of avenging angel, dishing out frontier justice for wronged prostitutes the world over. At the very least, she puts the blame for Aileen’s behavior in the lap of the first guy she shoots.

It’s presumptuous, of course, to draw conclusions about an author’s intent, purpose, or meaning. But I don’t think it’s a stretch in this case. Jenkins goes to great lengths to undermine her title and cast Aileen as misunderstood and something approaching a victim.

I’m not buying it. Jenkins wastes a phenomenal Theron performance by turning Monster into a prostitute-empowerment spectacle. She’s content with a skin-deep explanation rather than delving into Aileen’s pathology or mystery.

The similarly grungy Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer didn’t pretend to know what lurked beneath the surface of its title character. Crucially, it showed Henry’s humanity and gave the audience a small measure of hope while never letting it forget the evil he had done and would do again.

Jenkins doesn’t find that balance or offer such nuance in Monster. The movie wants you to empathize with Aileen instead of being scared of her. It should have tried to evoke both reactions.

Funny, I didn’t get the sense of judgment that you decide from this film at all. I agree with you about Theron’s performance, and that the true core if it had little to do with the fact that she looked so bad. She inhabited the movie in a deeply compelling way.

But I found the overall film remarkably balanced. With subject matter like this, it’s virtually impossible to avoid some kind of exterior judgment of the events and people, but that is precisely what I think Jenkins succeeded in doing.

Is Jenkins really portraying Aileen as a victim? Just because the character often presents herself that way doesn’t mean that Jenkins is crafting her film to endorse that belief. Monster doesn’t peg Aileen as a villain, which is refreshing. if somewhat disturbing. But neither does it buy into or endorse her “victim” story. The camera’s point of view shows Aileen’s consistent hypocrisy, her rage, and her sociopathy, yet it presents her as a human being, with some traits that we can recognize, even identify with.

This is what makes the film powerful and unsettling, and I think Jenkins displays an excellent command of tone throughout the film.

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