I saw two new movies over the weekend that have been receiving major critical acclaim, Clint Eastwood’s new drama, Mystic River (IMDB), and Patty Jenkins’ first major film, Monster (IMDB).
Both films have been praised for the performances of the lead and supporting actors. Just minutes ago, in fact, Tim Robbins won a Golden Globe Award for supporting actor for his performance as a child molestation survivor in Mystic River, while Roger Ebert proclaims Charlize Theron’s performance as Aileen Carol Wuornos, imprecisely described as the world’s first female serial killer, to be “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema,” which probably overstates things just a little. However, Eastwood’s crime drama left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied, while Monster’s treatment of the Wuornos story shook me pretty deeply, and I was impressed by the film’s unwillingness to offer any simple explanations for Wuornos’s behavior.
Both films open with flashback images of childhood memories: In Mystic River, we see three boys playing street hockey in a working-class Boston neighborhood when one of the boys, Dave, is picked up by a child molester posing as a police officer. Years later, the boys have grown up and gone their separate ways, but the opening scene is played as a traumatic event that determines every choice they make for the rest of their lives. Jimmy (Sean Penn), the brashest of the three, grows into a life of small-time crime and has a teenage daughter who is mysteriously killed. Jimmy immediately suspects Dave, and some circumstantial evidence uncovered by police officer and third boyhood friend, Sean (Kevin Bacon), points towards Dave’s guilt. By focusing on the single childhood event (I’ve heard that Dennis Lehane’s book offers more detail from their pasts), Mystic River puts entirely too much weight on it.
The film’s treatment of gender also left me feeling somewhat cold, with the wives of all three characters left pretty much unexamined. Marcia Gay Harden, playing Dave’s wife Celeste, is given little else to do other than frown and simper when she begins to think her husband may be a murderer, with no real explanation given for her sudden betrayal. Laura Linney, playing Jimmy’s (Penn) wife, does little in the film until the final scene when she attempts to comfort her husband in a scene that felt like something out of a different movie.
Monster, on the other hand, seems to use the flashback in a slightly different way. Aileen (Theron) narrates in voice-over that she “always wanted to be in the movies,” but we see and learn quickly that her life didn’t go as planned. By the age of 13, Aileen was already a street prostitute, and we soon see her under a highway overpass, contemplating suicide. She goes into a local bar (apparently not realizing at first that it was a lesbian bar) where she meets Selby (a good but thankless performance by Christina Ricci), another lonely individual searching for friendship. In fact, one of the best sequences of the film shows them dancing together in a roller skating rink while Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” plays in the background, suggesting for a brief moment the tenderness the two women briefly shared.
But Monster doesn’t reduce Aileen’s actions to a single moment or decision. Instead, her violence (which sometimes even seems to surprise her) seems to grow out of bad luck, bad decisions, and a series of abusive relationships. This is where Theron’s performance, filled with awkward gestures and false bravado, really seemed to define a character. The first murder, in fact, is portrayed as self-defense against a “john” who has raped and beaten her. The low-angle camera shot captures Aileen’s vulnerability and the violence enacted upon her. Wisely, however, the film avoids reducing her murders to this single event; in fact, it seems to avoid identifying a singular cause altogether, which I found to be one of Monster’s greatest strengths.
The final shot also supports this reading: it shows Aileen being led away from the courtroom with the knowledge that Selby has identified her to the police in order to avoid prosecution on other charges. She quotes various cliches that people have repeated to her in the past: “Faith can move mountains, everything happens for a reason.” Then after a pause, she laughs and says, “Well, they gotta tell you something.” This sequence is, as Cynthia Fuchs suggests, “testament to the combined horror and banality of Wuornos’ story.”