Category: biopics / In category: 2 of 10 / Overall: 45 of 100
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the pre-credits title card “based on a true story” can strike fear into the heart of even the most hardened movie buff. The phrase often covers a multitude of sins. For “sins” read inconsistencies, inaccuracies, blatant fabrications, composite characters and redacted timelines. And to be fair, filmmakers kind of have to. Even if your subject is, say, Jim Morrison – who died at the age of 27 – a two and a half hour movie about that person’s life will still have to be incredibly selective in terms of what to feature, what to depict. Composite characters help reduce timelines; blatant fabrications are sometimes necessary to provide context.
All told, the biopic is something of a poisoned chalice. A filmmaker can draw as much flak for basing their movie on disputed material. Take Bernard Rose’s ‘Immortal Beloved’: a barnstorming performance by Gary Oldman, the music of Beethoven used contextually and often very imaginatively, a couple of inspired moments of visual poetry … and yet Rose bases his screenplay on Anton Schindler’s account of the maestro’s life – a version all but written off by academics and historians as spurious at best and almost certainly whitewashed by Schindler in order to claim a far greater importance as Beethoven’s friend and professional associate than was actually the case.
Patty Jenkins’s ‘Monster’ seems to draw from a multitude of sources. Aileen Wuornos’s own witness-stand account of the first killing – motivated by her rape at the hands of a client – is graphically depicted in the film; the other killings, however, have no sexual imperative beyond Wuornos picking the men up as potential clients, instead using the secluded areas they take her to as cover for robbery and murder. These scenes smack of Wuornos’s recanted story just before her execution – a recantation that Nick Broomfield’s second documentary on Wuornos exposes as a ploy to expedite said execution.
‘Monster’ also replaces Wuornos’ turncoat partner Tyria Moore with a fictional stand-in character, Shelby Wall (Christina Ricci), who serves the same narrative function as Moore (ie. requires Wuornos to go back to in-car prostitution in order to provide for her; and promptly sells her out to the cops the moment the heat comes down) but is demonstrably different in terms of characterisation. I guess this was a compromise Jenkins and her collaborators had little choice in since Moore is still alive (although thought to be living under an assumed name) and could conceivably sue.
Nonetheless, Theron gives the performance of her career, the incredibly gorgeous actress disappearing into the old-before-her-time visage of Wuornos. Watching the film a day after the Broomfield documentaries (‘The Selling of a Serial Killer’ was apparently Theron’s go-to resource for her portrayal) is to marvel at how unnervingly convincing Theron is; it’s not just the look or the voice, but the entire panoply of facial expressions and mannerisms. The Oscar was richly deserved.
Elsewhere, the film has some minor flaws (the pacing is a tad uneven; the soundtrack is contrived instead of seeming organic; and there’s no real visual flair, Jenkins and her DoP Steven Bernstein conjuring far fewer grittily iconic images than you’d expect given the material), but there’s not an ounce of sensationalism, nor does Jenkins’s attempt to humanise Wuornos tip over into cloying melodrama of the “tragic heroine” school. Ultimately, ‘Monster’ – made just a year after Wuornos’s execution – is a good film that falls somewhat short of being great but is gifted with a simply awesome central performance.