The tragic force of Charlize Theron's performance in "Monster" has both done wonders for the film's advertising campaign as well as it has been a slight detriment. While I am convinced that without her this film would have gone virtually unseen, the numerous amount of awards and accolades she has accumulated for it have caused quite a few critics to label Patty Jenkin's film as a one-trick pony. Contrary to that belief, however, "Monster" is not merely a film that acts as auxiliary to Theorn's moment in the spotlight.
"Monster" tells the story of Aileen Wuornos (Theron), a prostitute in 1980s Florida. After contemplating suicide on the side of the highway, Wuornos wanders into what she doesn't recognize as a gay bar to buy a few drinks. There she meets Selby (Christina Ricci), a girl to whom she is initially hostile but eventually warms up to. When spending the night with her, she learns that Selby was expelled from her home in Ohio by her religious father because of her homosexuality. Even though Aileen doesn't consider herself a lesbian, she finds something in Selby that allows her to fall in love with her. Aileen wants to gather enough money to take Selby away from the family she's living with to a motel somewhere, so goes out to "hook" to get it.
Unfortunately, her last "John" of the day has too much to drink and becomes violent towards her. She passes out, and wakes up tied up in a car covered in plasticthe man she was with begins to rape her, until she's able to untie her ropes and fight back, killing him. Realizing how much money she got from the encounter, Wuornos begins to make a habit of murdering; taking her patrons in to remote areas, shooting them and taking their money. All of this is done without Selby's knowledge.
The mountain of praise heaped upon Theron's turn in "Monster" is not hyperbole. Here, Theron is something of a revelation. While she wears a certain amount of prosthetic makeup (and it seems as minimal as possible), she does not act underneath or thanks to it. Although her physical features have been slightly modified, she herself is completely responsible for inhabiting the unique physicality of Wuornos and understanding her constant fear and harsh neurosis. Christina Ricci is also does impressive work here, embodying the exact confusion and helplessness Selby lives through. Both actresses manage their roles without upstaging the material, which is powerful in and of itself.
"Monster" is almost deceptively straightforward in its approach. It begins as almost annoyingly conventional; Theron's narration and the heightened mood of her performance seem to strike a wrong chord. When the first murder occurs, we understand Wuornos enough to almost want the first man to die. Again, this is somewhat of an issue in that this seems to be a typically "movie" device; manipulation in favor of the protagonist. However, as the film progresses, Jenkins redirects it; the murders naturally evolve from a revenge-film trick into real horror. "Monster" all but condemns its viewers. It forces them to move away from complacent viewing into a much more uncomfortable place. This is not manipulation; it is the same realization that Wuornos herself painfully underwent.
In fact, amongst the horror of the film's second act, it is hard to realize how tastefully done it all is. Film is going through a phase some people have called "cinematic nihilism", where graphic violence is passing for great art. It will keep being so until it loses its shock value and the world is completely desensitized. But "Monster" stands as a testament that true pathos can be derived from stories such as Wuornos' without the exploitation that today's common wisdom deems as "essential".