There’s nothing more annoying than the drooling adoration
critics shower on actresses who alter their physical appearances
for films. Nicole Kidman was lauded for wearing a prosthetic nose
in “The Hours,” Halle Berry was praised for appearing
sans makeup in “Monster’s Ball” and — most
infuriatingly — Gwyneth Paltrow was commended by
women’s magazines for donning a fat suit in “Shallow
Hal.”

Mira Levitan
It puts the lotion on the skin, or else it gets the hose again. (Courtesy of Newmarket)

Now Charlize Theron (“The Italian Job”), usually
cast as arm-candy for the leading man, is garnering similar buzz
for her portrayal of real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in
Patty Jenkins’ “Monster” — a portrayal that
involves fake yellowed teeth, splotchy skin, dry stringy hair and
an extra 25 pounds to her frame.

What separates Theron from the rest of these actresses, however,
is that while audience members are aware they are watching Kidman,
Barry or Paltrow in their roles, they cannot even find a trace of
Theron in Wuornos’ character. Theron completely immerses
herself in the role, churning out one of the best performances seen
in recent years and saving “Monster in the process.

Without a strong female lead, “Monster” would have
fallen flat on its face, lacking a tight, well-written script with
clear motivations for its characters. The voice-over narration
shamelessly pleads for sympathy for the main character, and on
paper the interactions between Wuornos and her lesbian lover, Selby
(Christina Ricci, “Sleepy Hollow”), seem rather cheesy
and superficial, consisting of either adoring compliments
(you’re-so-beautiful’s) or naive, foolish promises
(I’ll-buy-you-anything-you-want’s).

Theron, fortunately, more than compensates for these flaws in
the script. The way she confidently swaggers in order to mask her
vulnerability and nervousness shown through her shaky fingers and
spastic head twitch makes her undeniably human and automatically
garners sympathy. The way she holds a wounded yet passionate look
in her eyes communicates all the motivation the audience needs to
make her character believable. The way she seems like she’s
improvising rather than reading a script gives a freshness and
sincerity to the otherwise mediocre dialogue. Theron even manages a
first-kiss scene accompanied by Journey’s “Don’t
Stop Believin’” to appear touching rather than sappy
— quite an astonishing feat.

“Monster” does not go deeply into Wuornos’
past that lead to prostitution, though sexual abuse and abandonment
are mentioned. The film chooses instead to focus on the
relationship between Wuornos and Selby and the murderous streak
sparked when she is raped by one of her customers — a streak
that leaves seven men dead.

The relationship between the two women is a bit muddled,
however. Theron makes it clear that when Wuornos meets Selby, she
is so damaged and disillusioned by the treatment she has received
from men that she clings onto Selby out of desperation and hope for
something better.

Ricci, however, never paints a clear picture of Selby. She
can’t decide whether she wants Selby to be extremely naive or
incredibly selfish. She claims to love Wuornos, yet she gets angry
when Wuornos announces she wants to quit
“hookin’.” She demands that Wuornos murder to
obtain a car, even after reacting in horror to Wuornos’
confession. Selby’s decision to testify against Wuornos also
remains unexplored, leaving Selby more as an outline or sketch
rather than a three-dimensional character. Strangely, the audience
understands the prostitute/serial killer more than the confused
drifter who gets swept into a relationship with her.

“Monster” may have its flaws, and its bleak
portrayal of humanity can turn off many, but the gritty honesty and
uncompromising passion that Theron brings to the movie transform it
into a captivating drama and forces us to see Wuornos as more than
a monster.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

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