Blood Money 

The (re)selling of a serial killer

The (re)selling of a serial killer

Monster

Dir.: Patty Jenkins

R, 111 min.

Opening Friday at area theaters

The subject of Nick Broomfield’s 1992 documentary Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer is introduced early on, in the glare of an unsparing camera. The subject is money. Broomfield wants an interview with the woman tabloids call “the first female serial killer,” who awaits judgment in a Florida prison. For the privilege, he’ll have to cough up $25,000—a fee agreed upon by her lawyer-agent and her brand-new adoptive mother. Too bad he hadn’t come five years earlier. Then, for the same money, Broomfield could have had sex with her a thousand times.

Back then, of course, nobody cared. Aileen Wuornos had not yet killed as many as seven men, in a string of robbery-murders between 1989 and 1990. She had not been given a snappy handle like “the Angel of Death,” as a Florida TV station dubbed her. She had nothing to sell but herself, which she had done since high-school age. She was pregnant at age 14, gave up the baby for adoption at 15, and turned to prostitution at the time most kids are considering prom dates. This alone, however, does not make you the star of your own documentary. This, in itself, is not worth $25,000. Wuornos’ life had no real value until she killed at least four men, and then her worth increased exponentially.

Even then, she was worth only what the market would pay, and always for how she could be resold in turn. Broomfield, a sly and corrosive British documentarian, has made a career of exposing the monetary self-interest of himself and his subjects. In Aileen Wuornos, he skewers her opportunistic dippie-hippie attorney, Steve Glazer, and her self-serving born-again “mother” Arlene Pralle for acting as her access pimps. And yet when the time comes to deliver cash on camera, the filmmaker himself peels off bill after bill. The money isn’t charity. Whether men paid to screw her or interview her, Wuornos had tangible value only as part of someone else’s agenda.

That’s a harsh, cynical light in which to cast Monster, a well-intentioned, often disturbing docudrama about Wuornos’ life and crimes. But it’s worth asking why the movie was made, and whom it will benefit. Clearly, writer-director Patty Jenkins means to counteract the media’s demonization of Wuornos, who was executed in 2002 after more than a decade on Florida’s death row. Even so, there wouldn’t be a movie if Wuornos hadn’t killed several people, and if her story weren’t sufficiently lurid to interest backers, a distributor and ultimately an audience. The subtle changes Monster makes in Wuornos’ story, from condensed characters to casting decisions, seem intended to make it more commercially palatable—to sell the serial killer all over again.

Monster introduces Wuornos to us tabula rasa. Her name isn’t spoken: She’s called “Lee” in the movie, and she comes to us first as a little girl. In voiceover, the adult Lee describes her childhood fantasies of stardom and romance, over home-movie footage of brutal irony. A man’s hand roughly yanking the girl away from the camera speaks volumes. When the grown-up Lee finally appears, sitting under an overpass with a gun trembling in her lap, she’s worth about $5. That’s how much she got for sucking off a guy, she tells us, and before she puts the gun to her head she’d better spend it or even that’ll be worthless. The word “monster” comes up in blood-red letters.

From there, Monster condenses about five years in Wuornos’ life, roughly the period that began with her first stable relationship and ended with her capture. Her lover, Tyria Moore, who helped police record incriminating phone calls and later testified against her, has apparently been changed into a character named Selby, a disarmingly sweet-faced schoolgirl (played by Christina Ricci) who meets Lee in a gay bar. The reason for Moore’s transformation here isn’t clear. Broomfield suggests that she had a financial stake in getting Wuornos convicted: The same lawyer, it turned out, represented both her and local police in TV-movie negotiations over rights to the story. A cynic might point out that the severe, mannish woman who appears in Broomfield’s doc is a lot less photogenic than baby-doll Ricci.

Lee herself is played by Charlize Theron, the statuesque actress and former model, who is hidden under ruddy makeup and additional bulk. Theron’s transformation has become the movie’s selling point and the basis of a steady Oscar drumbeat. But it’s an unnecessary distraction that turns the role into a Halloween costume. For one thing, the makeup job is glaringly obvious. For another, if the point is to show the human being instead of the media construction, why turn Wuornos’ face into a mask? The makeup forces your attention away from Theron’s ravaged, physically exact performance and onto the stunt casting. It’s impossible to forget, for even a moment, that she’s playing “Aileen Wuornos,” star of tabloid TV, not just one in a multitude of abused, impoverished, desperate people whose waving arms never catch the media’s eyes.

That’s not to say that Monster doesn’t have affecting and original moments, or that it doesn’t mark Jenkins as a filmmaker to watch. A profile in Filmmaker magazine said that Jenkins pitched Monster as the modern-day kin to Badlands and Bonnie & Clyde, and it shares some of those movies’ strong virtues—chiefly, a piercing sense of the isolation, timelessness and disconnection of lives on the outlaw fringe. In the movie’s best scenes, Jenkins cuts between Selby’s dull suburban world—a prison to her, a palace to Lee—and Lee’s rootless life as an interstate prostitute, and both seem equally foreign. But to Lee, feeling kindness for the first time, an ordinary roller rink playing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ “ has the force of romantic epiphany.

It makes sense that this whipped dog of a human being would risk the rape and mutilation of johns, just to believe that such sweet nothing is possible. And when Ricci’s Selby looks up at her with pleading eyes, asking why Lee can’t just turn a few more tricks to get some food, we understand why Lee can only look back at her helplessly. In these scenes, Monster transcends its dubious roots as a serial-killer biopic, a genre that combines the least appealing aspects of consumer culture and celebrity worship. It allows us to see Wuornos as something more than a demon stoked to sell papers and videos and, yes, movie tickets. At the same time, to its credit, the movie shows that in her desperation, she was ruthlessly capable of tallying how much beer, fast food and shelter each new body would buy. If there’s one thing this country knows how to produce, it’s consumers.

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