“Yeah, I had a lot of dreams. And I guess you can call me a real romantic, because I truly believe that one day, they’ll come true. So I dreamed about it for hours. As the years went by, I learnt to stop sharing them with people. They said I was dreaming. But back then, I believed it wholeheartedly.”

I’ll admit, I was a little scared to watch Monster. I’d heard all the great things about Charlize Theron’s performance and her transformation into this character, and I’m a fan of writer and director Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), but I was worried that the film would portray, well, a monster—a character without anything to like or attach to. There’s a place for films with highly unlikeable main characters (Hello, Scarface), but they can easily go awry and just not be enjoyable to watch. I’m happy to say I did enjoy Monster—quite a bit, in fact. Immediately, in the opening monologue, I was intrigued by the real-life character of Aileen “Lee” Wuornos, a prostitute and serial killer in Florida in the late 80s and early 90s. Yes, Charlize Theron is great in it, but there’s a lot to like here.

The plot follows Lee, a prostitute that’s been trying to make ends meet since she found herself homeless and alone at 14 years old. Lee is used to making people feel loved, but very unaccustomed to feeling loved herself. So when she meets Selby, a younger woman who takes an interest in her, she finds herself quickly drawn to Selby’s earnest attempts to make Lee feel loved. Lee goes back to work and encounters a client who assaults her with plans of killing her, so Lee fights back and ends up killing the man in self defense. This puts Lee on the run, and she takes her newfound lover Selby with her. But now that Lee feels empowered to kill violent clients, things start spiraling out of control.

‘All you need is love and to believe in yourself.’ Nice idea. It doesn’t exactly work out that way. But I guess it was better to hear a flat-out lie than to know the truth at 13.

The character of Lee is deeply flawed and makes some bad choices throughout the film. She’s not without her virtues—she cares deeply for Selby and she’s survived on her own on the streets for decades—but we know right from the beginning that she’s not one of the world’s “good guys,” and she’s not guaranteed a happy Hollywood ending. This is not a happy movie, and I think that’s one of its greatest strengths: this film does not pull any punches in showing how hard life is for Lee, and it makes few excuses for some of the very regrettable choices she finds herself making. Even the moments of joy she finds in the film are marred by the dangerous life she lives. The film does a great job of taking what is objectively a terrible person and making her relatable and sympathetic to the viewer. For a biopic about a convicted serial killer, that’s one of the highest forms of praise.

Both Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci gave amazing performances, but they really transformed themselves for the roles as well. Both actresses put on significant weight (Ricci put on 20 pounds and Theron 30) for the film and didn’t shy away from the less than flattering aspects of the characters they were portraying, dressing in unflattering clothing and speaking without the grace we see from them in other roles. Theron herself is almost unrecognizable, transforming not only her body but also her whole demeanor, and she took home the Academy Award for best actress. But Ricci does a pretty great job playing the naive and lonely Selby (a fictional character based loosely on a real person who didn’t want to be portrayed in the film) and is a real underrated part of the film.

Charlize Theron, an actress known for her grace and beauty, completely transformed herself for this role. She won a well-deserved Oscar for best actress.

I mentioned that the film is a sad one, but it’s also endearing, making the viewer feel sympathy for Lee (and Selby) and even root for them in spite of their flaws. I was surprised at how emotional the film was, actually. The emotion itself is very understated and doesn’t wear out its welcome, but throughout the entire viewing, you know it’s there. This is a great example of a film that really makes you feel things without being manipulative or relying on the cheap gut-punch emotion many other emotional movies are known for.

Monster is an outstanding drama about a fascinating, and deeply flawed, main character. The rambling pacing that plagues many biopics is not present here and the film moves quickly toward its inevitable conclusion. The film makes no attempt to clean up either of its main characters for general audiences, and the emotions it evokes are real and well-earned. All this comes together for a very successful drama and biopic that doesn’t talk down to its viewers.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 1:49

Director: Patty Jenkins

Year: 2003

Genres: Biopic, Crime, Drama

Rating: R

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