Film Reviews

Monster (2003) – Blu-ray Review

From Second Sight Films comes a new Blu-ray release of 2003’s Monster, the directorial debut of Patty Jenkins, and an Oscar-winning performance from Charlize Theron for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Coming from a tough upbringing, laced with violence and sexual abuse, Wuornos found herself in a life of sex work, whilst struggling with her own sexuality. Our story picks up in the late 1980s around the time Aileen meets Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). A young lady from a religious upbringing, sent away by her parents, Wall is more open about who she is, but has paid the price for this by her family disowning her.

After meeting at a bar, and having become lovers, Aileen and Selby move temporarily into a hotel, and in trying desperately to earn enough money to keep her young partner happy – as it is clear she feels that she will lose Selby if she fails to ‘spoil’ her – Wuornos heads back out onto the street. When attacked viciously by a client, Wuornos kills him is self-defence. This sets up a run of such encounters that appears to begin with a traumatised Aileen fearing another such attack but devolves into straight-up violent robberies and murders that are a mixture of needing money and getting back at a client base – and gender – that has abused her for much of her life.

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Were Monster purely a work of fiction, it would rate slightly higher. It is led by an extraordinary, vanity free performance from Theron, which is not simply a beautiful woman playing unattractive; rather it is a beautiful woman playing someone believing themselves to be unattractive, but wanting to be as beautiful as they can, whilst struggling to open up to anyone, and trying to contain an immense temper. The film deals with its subject with what appear to be the appropriate shades of grey. Jenkins is great at portraying small moments of affection and coaxing the right reaction at the right times from her cast. It is a solid piece of work.

Where things get a little murkier is in its portrayal of events. Selby is based on a different person, and a slightly different timeline. Bruce Dern’s Thomas character is a composite of many different positive influences in Aileen’s life. More worrying is the portrayal of the victims. Aileen had a tactic of pretending to have broken down and getting lifts from passing vehicles, then begging for money, offering her body in return. This has left the families of some of the victims very upset, as there simply is no evidence in many of the cases that events unfolded as portrayed here, and their loved ones may have been slandered. The film pays lip-service to this tactic, but the movie versions of these guys are largely bad men (with one huge exception). As a piece of drama, though, Monster is terrific.

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Bonus features kick off with an archive commentary from Jenkins, Theron and producer Clark Peterson. They seem to be recording from the same location, and the conversation flows very nicely. It is very earnest, though they do find opportunities to have some fun. It is clear that they all enjoyed the experience of creating this film. They are still firmly in the camp of trying to understand, almost defend her.

The disc then moves on to some newly shot interviews. ‘Making a Murderer’ with Patty Jenkins, is around 48 minutes long, disappointingly with no subtitle options. This is an-depth talking head about how she came to the project. We learn of the immense amount of study she did on the subject – as she had access to hundreds of letters Aileen wrote whilst in prison. The approach is instead of making Charlize look bad, it was about a weather-beaten woman trying to look good. This is intercut with scenes from the film, and she covers everything from writing, to casting decisions, to the symbolism behind certain scenes such as the skating rink, and how they got permission from Steve Perry to use ‘Don’t stop believin”. It is engaging and exhaustive, and clearly it was a life and career changing experience for a young writer and director.

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‘Producing a Monster’ is a new interview with Producer Brad Wyman, running to around 20 minutes. He talks about how he met Patty, and how she was the only filmmaker on a first meeting not to talk about breaking into the business and instead about her passion project – this film. He takes us through how he assembled the team to make the film, and how Patty had written the film with Charlize Theron. Wardrobe and make-up are covered in-depth. He is very generous in his praise of those working on the crew.

‘Light From Within’ is a new, 44 minute interview with Director of Photography Steven Bernstein. This is more of a career retrospective, with Steven talking about what he learned from his prior work in music videos and commercials. Then how he got into Hollywood and met the likes of Adam Sandler. We are around 19 minutes in before we get to Monster. He is particularly good on the challenges of shooting key scenes – particularly the skating scene. It is rare we get this degree of warmth from an interview with a cinematographer.

Then we return to archive features. ‘Monster: The Vision and Journey’ is around 25 minutes in duration. It starts with news audio from the time of arrest, then into scenes from the film. This is shot 4:3 standard definition, and is intercut between scenes from the trial, news, interviews with Theron and Jenkins, and behind the scenes footage from the shoot. It is broken into short chapters about authenticity, choices etc. It is a decent if unremarkable for its time (which we would assume is 2004).

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Rounding the set out is ‘Based on a True Story: The Making of Monster’ at just under 15 minutes. This has lots of crossover with the ‘Vision and Journey’ feature. Deleted and extended scenes with director commentary are 17 minutes covering five scenes either not used in the film, or fuller versions of some that were. ‘Monster: Evolution of the Score’ is nearly 16 minutes on BT’s score. This is standard definition though widescreen and features the usual talking heads from the time. Again, this is decent, and it does underline the passion of everyone involved. Limited Edition contents that we did not get to see: a rigid slipcase with new artwork by Daniel Benneworth-Gray, a soft cover book with new essays by Anton Bitel, Hannah Strong and Shelagh Rowan-Legg and six collectors’ art cards.

This rounds out a very thorough set for what was a relatively low-budget film that hit it big due to one extraordinary performance from a Hollywood A-lister. This is a film that is definitely recommended, provided it is not taken as a journal of the actual events. This is a fictionalised take on the tragic tale of a woman who was dealt a bad hand in life, such that tragedy always seemed inevitable.

Monster is out now on Blu-ray from Second Sight.

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