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Love kills: (l-r) Ricci and Theron in Monster.

Not a Pretty Picture
By Shawn Stone

Monster
Directed by Patty Jenkins

The “sexy serial killer” genre has been one of the creepier film developments of the last dozen years. Thanks primarily to The Silence of the Lambs and its spinoffs, vicious sociopathic killers have become the darlings of millions. And, well, it’s kind of disgusting.

Aileen “Lee” Wuornos (Charlize Theron) isn’t a well-spoken, Dante-reading, Bach- listening super-genius carving up assorted innocents for supper (and our amusement). In Monster, this real-life serial killer is a societal castoff: an abused and abandoned child grown into a battered, exploited adult. She’s a prostitute, but there’s nothing sexy about her. Treated, literally, as human garbage, she eventually turns on the world with shocking fury.

Writer and director Patty Jenkins sketches Lee’s life with heartbreaking deftness. With Theron’s voice-over on the soundtrack, images flash by of a beautiful-but-bruised little girl, and then a poverty-stricken (and socially scorned) teen turning tricks when she should be in school. When Jenkins shows the adult Lee at work on the highways of Florida, and the clueless, self-absorbed men who buy her services for 10 or 20 dollars, the anger and despair are palpable.

Lee turns a corner when she meets Selby (Christina Ricci), a lonely young woman trying to come to terms with being gay. (Selby has been exiled from her Ohio home to a relative’s house in Florida for trying to kiss a girl—in church.) The two hit it off and, though Lee professes not to be gay, fall in love. Lee decides to quit hooking and go straight.

Things fall apart quickly, however, as Lee has no education or skills, and Selby is selfish and lazy. A horrific encounter with one of Lee’s johns ends in murder. Murder, it turns out, is something, finally, that she has a talent for.

This kind of film is, ultimately, only as effective as its lead performance. If we don’t buy Theron, everything falls apart. Which is why the first part of Monster is, despite Jenkins’ deft storytelling, a mess. Theron has always been, at best, an adequate actress. Her most recent film, The Italian Job, was entertaining in spite of her and the other lead, Mark Wahlberg; they were dull, and the picture was saved by the skilled supporting cast.

Gaining weight and making herself “ugly” doesn’t magically transform Theron into Meryl Streep, or even Uma Thurman: She plays the character as a twitching, barely watchable wreck, externalizing emotional pain with a grotesque overplaying particular to Method acting. Theron’s obvious commitment eventually begins to work, however. Once Lee starts killing her customers—and becomes more secure in her relationship with Selby—Theron tones down the mannerisms. Through sheer doggedness, she grows more convincing as Lee becomes more monstrous.

Alas, the trajectory of Ricci’s performance as Selby is exactly the opposite. Beguiling and wounded in the beginning, Ricci grows less and less believable. It’s clear that Selby, without acknowledging it, knows how Lee is acquiring money and cars; Ricci never displays the nuances of self-delusion, duplicity and selfishness central to Selby’s personality.

If Monster is an indictment of society’s inability to help abused and abandoned women and children, it also challenges the popular notion of what a serial killer is: an inhuman fiend, a modern substitute for vampires and werewolves. (That’s what makes “monster” such a satisfying title.) Lee kills men partially as revenge for every horrible thing men have done to her, but also because she discovers—to her surprise—that it’s a more efficient and lucrative way to make money than hooking. In this, Monster has more in common with Charlie Chaplin’s Bluebeard comedy Monsieur Verdoux than Hannibal. If the film does nothing more than deglamorize the genre, it has accomplished something worthwhile.

On Speed

Torque
Directed by Joseph Kahn

Starring the rocket-fueled motorcycles known as “crotch rockets,” Torque is another speed-demon movie produced by Neil H. Moritz, who has created his own genre of mindless, indirect-to-video-game cinema. Although Torque eats the dust of Moritz’s The Fast and the Furious, it’s better than that film’s posing sequel. And it at least has a sense of humor along with its extreme attitude. Parroting Vin Diesel’s silliest line, Ford (The Ring’s Martin Henderson) tells his former girlfriend, Shane (Monet Mazur), “I live my life a quarter of a mile at a time,” to which she replies, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” Actually, it’s not, considering the rest of the film’s dialogue. No wonder Ford is having a hard time getting her back in the saddle.

Complicating his cave-man courtship is the fact that he’s been set up by Henry (Matt Schulze), a drug dealer in Biker Town, where it’s always spring break. Henry is perhaps jealous of Ford for his resemblance to a Tom Cruise-Kurt Russell genetic hybrid, and that’s why he stashed his crystal meth in some bikes in Shane’s body shop. Anyway, the FBI is on Ford’s tail, and oh yeah, Ford is also under suspicion of having murdered the little brother of a nasty bike-gang leader, Trey (Ice Cube, whose entire performance consists of nostril-pinching sneers).

Once the cranking plot has been set in motion, the film shifts into gear with the idiotically reckless racing scenes that are its raison d’être. And some of them are pretty good, as long as you don’t pay attention to things like gravity, time and space. There’s a wheelie ballet with a speeding train, and a gang melee through a grove of palm trees that at least gets points for originality of backdrop. The man with his hand on the joystick, Joseph Kahn, is a top-tier music-video director, and he certainly knows how to throw together a flashy chase sequence, even if it requires ludicrous amounts of splicing and stunt mechanics. For the climactic warp-speed road race, he dispenses with movie logic altogether and shifts into gaming-style computer animation. This bit is either awesome or laughable, depending on whether the viewer is under or over 11 years old.

Adam Scott (Party of Five) as the terminally hip FBI geek is kinda fun, and so are the crayon-colored leathers worn by all the bikers (except the requisite Goth-chick cycle slut). Other than that, there’s no reason not to pass on the film in favor of Torque, the video game, where at least the viewer will be able to dispense with the moronic macho posturing and cut straight to the animated chase.

—Ann Morrow


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