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The Least of These

“Monster” shows us life among the low.

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Theron’s guise — bad teeth, lank hair and cellulite — is so convincing that it’s hard to recognize her; descriptions of this characterization are usually preceded by reminders of how beautiful the actress is. Yet no makeup artist can substitute for acting, which Theron does magnificently. Beyond mere prosthetic teeth, she becomes the homeless and street-smart Wuornos in the eyes, with the near-feral expression of an abused animal, wary and nervous but ready to defend itself.

We are brought up-to-date on how Wuornos got that look by a brief intro of grainy and color-saturated scenes from the trailerville of her youth: the toddler Aileen with a black eye; the young girl giving the boys a peep show; the middle-school girl going down on a middle-aged john.

When we meet the adult, she’s resting under a bridge, worn out and fondling a pistol she keeps for protection. Before killing herself, she decides, she’ll get one last drink, in a lesbian bar where she meets a young woman named Selby (Christina Ricci). The two run away together, but only after Wuornos has a horrifying backwoods encounter with a deranged trick, whom she must kill to escape. She takes care of the evidence and the girlfriends move to a motel, where Wuornos bursts with dreams of a new life, maybe as a veterinarian, or president. She’s serious, even as the world sneers. Secretary is far beyond her reach, and the scenes of her trying to go straight are heartbreaking. She must go back to hooking, but something has snapped.

One thought kept occurring during the proceedings: How are audiences going to handle this? I’m not just talking about the gruesome rape scene or the grisly murders. It’s the blows to the collective ego that make this realistic movie so daring. Reassuring thoughts that help us sleep at night — like bums should just “get a job” — erode as Wuornos embarrasses herself in interview after interview and inevitably drifts back to hustling. How does one get a job without a car, skills, wardrobe, connections or the money to pay for any of it? Better yet, how does one walk down the street without becoming a victim? “Monster” shows us life among the low, whose only accomplishment might be a few minutes of infamy on the nightly news.

Just as marvelous as Theron’s appearance is the way director Patty Jenkins handles the material for her debut feature. The women at the center of this story are uncomfortably real. To the millions of Americans who saw only the worst when Wuornos’ face was broadcast on the nightly news, the image of her lying on a motel bed, glowing with newfound love and dreaming of becoming a veterinarian is a revelation. Selby, with a mullet haircut and wife-beater T-shirt, is a dyke ingenue, naive and inquisitive and not so much in love as in love with the idea and adventure of it. Wuornos will simply do anything, including murder, for the only person who thinks she’s beautiful, even though she’s not really all that lesbian.

Jenkins somehow manages to create a love affair that’s cataclysmic but unpretentious. That the two women have sex seems almost irrelevant given the scary realities of the world; it’s enough to find someone who’s kind. Their love scene in the dark of a cheap motel, though rife with squirm-inducing glimpses of blubber, is a welcome respite from the cold predation outside the door.

“Monster” is a title steeped in irony, but the movie rarely preaches. Aside from a few ill-conceived voice-overs and miscued laughs, Jenkins comments on Wuornos’ life with an elegant touch, explaining her circumstances without acquitting her. She’s humanized the inhuman — something that seemed impossible at the time of her monster’s capture. **** S



“Monster” is scheduled to open Friday, Jan. 23, at the Westhampton Theatre.

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