When considering a particularly fine performance it is often said that the actor inhabits the character he or she is playing. In the case of Charlize Therons career-changing portrayal of serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute executed in 2002 for murdering seven men, this description could not be more accurate. It is more than the extraordinary physical transformation that makes Therons performance so believable; the actress reinvents herself and erases any notion of the beautiful, elegant star with whom we are familiar. In both the delivery of her dialogue and in mannerisms that suggest the characters discomfort with her own awkwardness and appearance, Theron forces us to see only Wuornos, not someone impersonating her.
There is much tragic irony in the fact that, at the beginning of the film, Wuornos - who at this stage has committed no murders - has been so ground down by life that she intends to kill herself. Before that, however, she decides to have a drink and wanders into a gay bar where she meets 18-year-old Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a lonely outsider trying to make contact. Although there is some initial tension between them when Wuornos thinks Selby is trying to pick her up and tells her she is not a lesbian, the two end up spending the night together. The young woman shows Wuornos more affection than she has known for a long time and gradually becomes her reason for living. Ultimately, she also becomes the principal witness who will send her to her death.
Selby, whose parents have sent her to stay with her aunt because of their inability to cope with her homosexuality, moves out to live with Wuornos who clings desperately to her newfound relationship. By now, she has already killed her first victim, a sadist who has tied, beaten and raped her and whom she has shot in self-defence with his own gun. Determined to be the breadwinner of the household, she tells Selby that she is giving up prostitution and applying for a real job, but a series of disastrous job interviews demonstrates that she has no hope of entering the work force. With no money coming in and Selby complaining about the dreary life they lead, Wuornos returns to prostitution, picking up drivers by the roadside, but her last experience has changed her and now, perhaps as some kind of retribution for the degradation she has suffered at the hands of men since childhood, she kills her customers, relegating them all to the same pigeonhole as her first brutal victim. Only one of her pick-ups (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a nervous first-timer, remains alive at the end of their encounter, but another man (Scott Wilson), who wants only to help her, is not spared. As she becomes more careless and her killing sprees begin to make headlines, her capture is inevitable.
Monster makes no judgement about Wuornos, but in its superb, fully-rounded portrait of her allows us to make our own decisions, and in Therons stunning performance gives us one of the high points of the movie year.