Pretty Ugly



reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, March 1, 2004


The sorry life story of the Jacqueline-the-Ripper serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a Florida roadside prostitute who robbed and murdered seven men she had flagged down, has already been beaten to death in tabloid television shows, documentaries, books, a TV movie-of-the-week, and even an opera. Therefore, "Monster" has only one justification for its existence, but it's a doozey: the instantly famous performance by the lovely Afrikaner starlet Charlize Theron.

Since 1997, Hollywood has been promoting the former model as the next big thing, but the public has barely noticed her. So, the 5'-10" Theron put on 25 husky pounds, jutting false teeth, and blotchy makeup over her Marilyn Monroe-like complexion. It's a remarkable transformation, but it raises the question of why didn't the filmmakers just hire a homely actress in the first place and save everyone a lot of trouble.

Theron, though, perfected a host of low-brow masculine mannerisms reminiscent of blond Eighties doofuses like Alex Winter' Ted in "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" and Tim Robbins' Nuke LaLoosh in "Bull Durham."

She portrays Wuornos as a volatile mixture of too much testosterone and too much estrogen, possessing both an unwarranted confidence in her looks and an inordinate need to be adored for them.

At age 13, according to "Monster," Wuornos is obsessed by how Marilyn Monroe was discovered at a drug store counter (actually, it was Lana Turner, but scholarship was not her strong suit). Unfortunately, her strategy for getting herself discovered never progresses much past hitchhiking on rural highways and hoping that one of her truck driving johns will be a movie mogul.

In her early thirties, Wuornos calls herself a hooker, but that represents less confession than career nostalgia, for she is now a homeless person who intermittently turns $20 tricks for beer money.

One day in 1989, a rain-soaked Wuornos wanders into a Florida tavern that turns out to be one of those dual-purpose small town gay bars where the men dance to disco in one corner while the women shoot pool to a jukebox full of Joan Jett in the other. A conservatively-dressed young lesbian named Selby (played by former child star Christina Ricci) plies her with beer, and soon has Wuornos thinking that since the male sex has yet to succumb to her charms, maybe she'll retire from whoring and settle down to playing femme with this ardent little butch.

But with Theron towering nine inches over Ricci, it looks unlikely that Wuornos' plan will work out better than any of her other sexual ambitions. Selby proves to be a teenager with no money and little interest in working for it. Worse, she's excited by Wuornos prostituting herself, and wants to live off her earnings.

But love has made Wuornos sick of hooking. Switching from femme to butch, Wuornos sallies forth with her usual self-esteem to find honest work, but having failed for years at providing for herself, she's singularly unsuited to bring home the bacon for two. Unhappily, a résumé with nothing on it other than an armed robbery conviction has her shouting obscenities at unimpressed job interviewers.

With Selby's pimpish encouragement, Wuornos is soon back thumbing rides. A sadist tries to thrill-kill her, but Wuornos shoots him first. It's a horrible experience, but, hey, she gets a free car out of it, which pleases Selby. So, Wuornos starts robbing men and shooting them to cover up. When Wuornos discovers she just killed a cop, Selby flatly refuses to flee town in anything as inconvenient as a bus and knowingly sends Wuornos out to slaughter another human being for his wheels.

As impressive as Theron is, she's onscreen so much that her tricks and tics start to take on a life of their own. "Monster" could have been a better movie with Theron in a supporting role and Ricci's more subtly malign Selby as the focus.

Feminism, however, has made femme fatales verboten. Today, women are supposed to be victims, not manipulators. "Monster" thus emphasizes how Wuornos was really a casualty of her horrible upbringing. Of course, lots of people somehow survive childhood traumas. When Theron was 14, for example, her mother killed her drunken father in self-defense -- but somehow Charlize hasn't murdered anybody yet.

Eventually, Wuornos confessed to six premeditated robbery-murders, but it still took over a decade before her execution in 2002.

Rated R for strong violence and sexual content, and for pervasive language.

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