Twenty Years Later, ‘Monster’ Remains a Superb Serial Killer Biopic


Biopics are hard. A person’s life, a complicated tapestry of paradoxes and grievances, surprises and delights, can be difficult to reduce into just two hours. The most successful, from my perspective at least, endeavor to work within microcosms, small standout moments that manage to effectively capture the essence of a person both before and after a given moment. For musicians, that might be a single, seminal show. For public figures, a particular crisis or turning point, maybe. Equally as important is the central performance. After all, biopics are Oscar bait. The past ten years saw six winners for Best Actor hailing from biographical dramas. For Best Actress, that number is smaller at three, though going back through the entire century, that number stands at eleven, almost half. Perhaps the most seminal of them all is Charlize Theron in Patty Jenkins’ Aileen Wuornos biopic Monster

Theron won the Oscar for her portrayal of Wuornos in 2003, a performance critics today still consider one of the most-deserved wins in the award’s history. It’s too easy to reduce Theron’s role there as another Hollywood A-lister gaining weight, wearing unattractive prosthetics, and slumming it for some gold. Yes, Theron looks the part, but unlike, say, Gary Oldman’s win for The Darkest Hour or Meryl Streep’s win for The Iron Lady, she doesn’t just look it. There’s a depth of tragedy to Theron’s Aileen Wuornos that remains inimitably absorbing. It’s an anguished, sympathetic role, one that never threatens to tip over into caricature.

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Like I said, biopics are hard. Serial killer biopics—and, really, serial killer cinema in general—are another matter altogether. For every Zodiac or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, there’s 2003’s Gacy or 2000’s Ed Gein. Horror filmmakers especially cull inspiration, if not outright mimicry, from real-life murders. The Strangers is a grab-bag of real crimes, including the Manson murders and the Keddie Cabin killings, and now infamously, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is basically Ed Gein. Even Wes Craven’s Scream draws heavily from real tragedy, with its always-hidden-in-the-house Ghostface borrowing liberally from The Gainesville Ripper. 

It’s a difficult balancing act, acknowledging the culture’s innate fascination with true crime—especially in this decade with its true crime boon—while simultaneously ensuring a piece of media accomplishes more than tawdry, exploitative intrigue, the lowest common denominator. True crime series and documentaries rarely accomplish more, often regressively having little to say beyond, “Aren’t these killings grim?” In the case of Monster, which turns 20 this year, director Patty Jenkins and star Charlize Theron had considerably more to juggle.

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To cull from something more recent, Monster reminds me of Marc Meyers’ 2017 criminally underrated biopic My Friend Dahmer. That film, like the former, had a heinous criminal at its core. Cinema is supposed to be challenging, but with these real subjects, it can be difficult to maintain the requisite distance. How does one cultivate empathy without inviting identification? And is empathy even the right approach? What value is there in showing the grim descent into violence, upbringing notwithstanding? Lots of people have horrible lives. Not all of them are serial killers.

Monster, then, was constrained from the start, not the least of which had to do with its subject. The University of Michigan estimates that only 8.6% of serial killers are female. The uniqueness probes an almost innate kind of hegemony, the traditional ideals that women aren’t violent—they’re not killers. Yet, here was a woman and a killer, one whose crimes are no less brutal in many ways than the likes of Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. Those figures and their requisite biopics, including Netflix’s Emmy-winning Dahmer, are considerably more misguided than Monster. They have nothing to say, reveling instead in the inevitability of graphic violence and enduring torment.

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Monster wisely opts not to empathize, but instead play out as a kind of cautionary tale. In Aileen Wuornos’ case, strengthened in the movie by Theron’s groundbreaking performance, the tension is culled not from the threat of violence, but instead from the opportunity to avoid it. Lover Selby Wall (played by Christina Ricci) is a way out of a rapid descent. Were it not for a fundamental lack of social safety nets, Wuornos might not have had to return to sex work after suffering a brutal assault. Without money or an education, every person she inquires with about help—mostly men—rejects her outright. Broadly, Wuornos was treated as disposable, and she resultantly took their disposability to a shocking extreme.

Wuornos’ father was a pedophile. At just eleven, she was exchanging sex for food. She was assaulted several times, gave birth to a son at fourteen, and started her sex work at fifteen when her grandmother passed away and her grandfather kicked her out. Any familiarity with the behavioral profiles of serial killers will render it shocking, if not exactly surprising. Serial killers regularly suffer tragic, often violent upbringings, no doubt accounting in some sense (though still, no one really knows how much) for the violence to come.

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Monster, however, doesn’t just settle for Wuornos’ account, that the men she killed had all tried to assault her, and their deaths were matters of self-defense, not murder. Several of them were murders, and often, the brutality of her crimes suggests something considerably more personal, violence as a misguided nostrum for her own suffering. In lesser hands, Monster could easily have been just as misguided, presenting little more than vignettes of brutality and murder awash in unearned empathy. That vignette style isn’t innately bad—Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer operates much the same, though it does so with a nihilistic purpose—but Monster does more than just dramatize murder. Monster cultivates striking realism and infuses meaning into its suffering.

A career-best Charlize Theron, as already mentioned, ties it all together, aiding in the coalescence of Patty Jenkins’ script and dour, matter-of-fact direction. As a collective whole, Monster is the rare serial killer biopic that challenges viewers for all the right reasons. Today, true crime content is quotidian, at times teetering toward the obsessive. Little of it has anything to say, much less the tact and insight needed to tackle real-life violence. That Monster had as much to say as well as it did 20 years ago is, in its own way, a small miracle. It’s the rare merging of earnest humanism and challenging, urgent violence. The title might be Monster, but the movie is anything but.



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