It's thoroughly understandable why the local shoot of "Monster" was kept comparatively low-key: When a film crew alights in your area to dramatize one of the most horrific sets of events in its history, your first impulse isn't always to send out the welcome wagon. But any fears that writer/director Patty Jenkins and co-producer/star Charlize Theron would make tabloid stuff of the Aileen Wuornos murders are put to rest by the finished film, which may well be the finest feature ever shot in Central Florida. It's certainly the best at conveying the ugly-but-true underside of a region that's better at eating hope than breeding it.
In many ways a nightmare image of the conventional follow-your-dreams movie, "Monster" begins with a voice-over in which Theron's Aileen -- who, we know, is destined to die by lethal injection after slaying seven men -- recounts her childhood belief that she would someday be a star. The matinee idols of yesteryear, she reminds us, were plucked from obscurity by eagle-eyed talent scouts. While this sermonette of sugar-plum optimism plays out on the audio track, we watch a flashback montage in which the pubescent Aileen (Kaitlin Riley) follows a different sort of career trajectory, first flashing her boobs in front of the neighborhood boys for money and then graduating to turning tricks in cars. We haven't even reached the opening titles, and filmmaker Jenkins has already made her point that "opportunity" is wholly contextual.
Our first exposure to the adult Aileen finds her a roadside prostitute of several years' standing, her fantasies of fame up in smoke and suicide looming as an ever-more-attractive option. A visit to an unfamiliar bar, however, results in a fateful meeting with one Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a lonely Ohioan sent to Florida by her family to purge her of her homosexuality. Unlike Selby, Aileen isn't a lesbian per se, but neither can she resist the possibility of experiencing genuine affection: As we will later learn via some strategically placed morsels of fill-in-the-blanks dialogue, her upbringing has entailed almost constant abuse at the hands of men. The two fall for each other with a passion that's literally desperate, and Aileen -- after an ill-fated attempt to land a straight job -- pursues the oldest profession with renewed vigor, hoping to make enough money to spirit them both away into a life of comfort. But two factors conspire to scuttle their plans: Having something to live for has brought out Aileen's festering contempt for her johns, and that self-awareness -- touched off by a nightmarish, violent encounter with a would-be clientÐ starts to manifest itself in the most brutal of ways. Meanwhile, signs are accruing that Selby is attracted to Aileen precisely because of the wrong-side-of-the-tracks unpredictability she represents -- hardly the firmest grounding for a retirement into domesticity.
Any time an actress agrees to give her personal stylist the day off, there's a critic waiting in the wings to hail her "brave, unrecognizable" performance, so it's a relief to learn that Theron's portrayal is every bit the milestone the initial buzz had indicated. Her face is an explosion of freckles set off by a picket fence of teeth, and her bulked-up body betrays a generous helping of cellulite. Behind the cosmetic transformation, though, lies a carefully thought-out characterization. A bundle of nervous energy in search of an outlet -- maybe any outlet -- Theron's Aileen is simultaneously frightening and sad, victim and victimizer. She can even be funny in a world-weary manner, though any laughs the mostly grim "Monster" has to offer are more than likely shot through with gallows humor. Ricci gets to do far more than be "the girlfriend" in this oddball love story, painting Selby's tag-along urges with a selfish yearning that, in its own way, is nearly as dangerous as her lover's hot temper.
Except for an arguably extraneous bedroom interlude, Jenkins wisely declines to eroticize the Aileen/Selby relationship, preferring to focus on romantic ironies -- like a roller-dancing courtship scene, set to the strains of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," that's sardonic on about seven different levels. The movie shrinks from the reactionary equation some might see in the Wuornos story (girl-girl attraction = man hatred), but neither does it succumb to the wacko-lefty notion that Aileen is a feminist antiheroine securing group vengeance for male transgressions. On at least one occasion, Jenkins goes out of her way to show that the character's anti-john crusade is as likely to claim benign souls as corrupt ones. (For the film's all-seeing empathy, we can in part thank the recurring drop-ins of first-person narration, a usually odious technique that's used here to splendid effect.)
Florida audiences will find the greatest resonance in "Monster," and not just because of the immediacy of the subject matter or the familiar faces of the local actors in the supporting cast. (T. Robert Pigott plays a bartender, Rus Blackwell appears as a predatory cop and Stephan Jones has a memorably nasty turn as a supercilious lawyer who has a good time quashing Aileen's attempt at upward mobility.) Neither is it due to the cheap thrill that occurs from seeing one's own environs on screen, though Jenkins deserves credit for securing the most honestly unattractive of locations: This could be the first film shot in and around Greater Orlando that doesn't include a view of Lake Eola. What the director captures best is the feeling of living in the cold, shadowy corners of a warm-weather playground -- of aspiring to an endless beach party while struggling with a bottom-rung existence that will likely reap no more than a handful of sand. From that first shattering monologue onward, the movie delights in dashing every Disneyfied notion of self-actualization you've ever ingested. A modern-day rebuttal to "Cinderella," "Monster" shows what terrible things can happen while you're waiting around to be somebody else.