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Monster: Special Edition

Charlize Theron picked up a Best Actress Oscar for her transformative turn in Monster (2003) as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, proving not only that the former cover girl possessed greater acting chops than previously displayed in Sweet November and The Astronaut's Wife, but also that the surest way for an actress to win universal acclaim these days is to butch-out in a sordid tale of trailer-park sexual victimization and mass murder. Indeed, Monster makes a fitting bookend along with Best Actress predecessor Hillary Swank's Boys Don't Cry (1999) for a shelf of LGBT True Crime titles. Where Boys Don't Cry depicted a reckless, if relatively innocent, transvestite con-artist whose unraveling web of lies results in her bloody murder, Monster turns the tables: Aileen Wuornos is a gender-bending hooker who works out years of sexual abuse by leaving a trail of dead Johns along Florida's Interstates, carving out her niche as America's "first female serial killer." Theron disappears into a masterfully transmogrifying combination of weight gain and prosthetics as the infamous Wuornos, depicted in writer-director Patty Jenkins' film as near-suicidal following an abusive childhood and almost a lifetime of homelessness and whoring. Just when Wuornos is on the verge of packing it in, she meets a wide-eyed lesbian, Selby (Christina Ricci, playing a fictional character based on Wuornos' lover Tyria Moore), who is just lonely and naive enough to show the embittered Wuornos the unconditional love her life had always been missing. However, love utterly fails to conquer all — desperate for money to sustain their love affair, Wuornos continues hooking, and when a vicious client savagely beats and rapes her, she kills him, beginning a murder spree that would claim six more lives before her arrest.

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Although the real Wuornos story is full of contradictions and unanswered questions, Jenkins (and Theron, who co-produced) settles on as sympathetic a depiction of the murderer as possible, while never shying away from the brutality of her crimes. Theron is convincing as the angry hooker with a victimization complex and borderline personality, and Jenkins uses this charged performance to sell what is ultimately an unchallenging cautionary tale about child abuse. The movie's biggest flight of fancy (aside from trusting Wuornos' initial description of events, which she would later suspiciously retract in the documentary Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer) is in the depiction of Wuornos' lover Selby. While the filmmakers went to great lengths to hide Theron's natural beauty, creating a spitting image of the real Wuornos, Selby is presented as a vulnerable, fair-skinned waif — beauty to Wuornos' beast — while Tyria Moore was nothing of the kind, but instead toothless, stocky, and masculine in appearance. As in Boys Don't Cry, Monster depends heavily on an unlikely fairy-tale romance to elicit empathy for its chronically manipulative sociopath, and Ricci's effective performance, and beguiling looks, softens Wuornos considerably, and blatantly betrays the filmmakers' agenda to turn Wuornos from killer to victim. As it is, Monster effectively presents this one angle of the story of Aileen Wuornos (a story that, if you needed confirmation, Jenkins says "broke my heart"), but leaves much of the larger story not only untold, but actively suppressed.

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Columbia TriStar presents this Special Edition of Monster in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS audio tracks. The only real value-adds in this edition over the previous release are the commentary track featuring Jenkins, Theron and producer Clark Peterson, and 16 minutes of deleted/extended scenes. The commentary's provides as acute an example of artistic myopia as currently exists, with the filmmakers repeatedly attempting a PR makeover for their death row subject, gushing profusely about Wuornos' great capacity for love, her strength of character, and her potential for excellence. Although they do briefly counter the moral difficulties in approaching their subject, they dismiss such qualms with well-practiced rationalizations that would impress a chronically abused spouse (this commentary actually makes the film less palatable, subtracting half a star from this review). Also included are a 25-minute featurette about the project, during which both Theron and Jenkins summarize their Wuornos-as-victim thesis, and another featurette about the film's unremarkable score composed by BT. There is also a new "Film Mixing Demo" included, which lets the viewer play around with the sound mix in selected scenes. Viewers looking for extras regarding Monster's true-crime subject matter will be disappointed. For greater context than this set cares to provide, including more glimpses of the less savory aspects of Wuornos' personality, check out Nick Broomfield's pair of documentaries, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992) and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003), the latter of which includes interviews right up to her execution in October 2002. While the content of Broomfield's films put Jenkins' rose-colored Monster to shame, they will also amplify Theron's brilliant impersonation. Trailer, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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