Since the South African waif known as Charlize Theron has put out onscreen for virtually everybody except Tobey Maguire (and who would?), she's a seemingly unlikely but ultimately ideal candidate for realizing the challenging lead role here. As Aileen "Lee" Wuornos, the very real woman recently executed in Florida for killing six men, Theron gets to turn her wanton, cinematic sexuality on its head -- then bash it senseless. In a performance as sensationally transformative and more powerful than Robert De Niro's in Raging Bull, Theron -- who could have joined the herds of pretty nobodies -- gets to immerse herself in the crudities of humanity, any good actor's dream. Her career may have been built upon steaming up the lens, but now she splatters it with blood and tears, and she's got the salt for it. It's hard to tell what Theron is drawing upon to manage this metamorphosis -- quite possibly the potential exploitation of her chosen field, or the validation and marketing associated with sparkly trophies -- but whatever it is, it's dynamite.
The true story of Wuornos' struggle has been told in books and onscreen (notably, in two documentaries by British American-ologist Nick Broomfield), but here it fully functions as a tight, engrossing, perfectly structured narrative, with some elements fictionalized in the interest of streamlining. We open with a heart-rending voice-over from Theron, explaining Wuornos' misspent youth in a self-absorbed, spot-on drawl that never veers into caricature, even when she admits to wanting to be "beautiful and rich, like the women on TV," and all that. The montage becomes harrowingly personal, however, as we catch an almost subliminal glimpse of a nasty bastard's leer, and we -- like Wuornos -- are off. By the conclusion, when she's mocking every sappy proverb in the Middle American canon ("Faith can move mountains," "Love will find a way," etc.), we deeply feel that healing requires more than lip service.
In an elegant framing device, we encounter Aileen as she's sitting under a highway overpass, wielding her big pistol, contemplating suicide. Her childhood dreams of fame (or at least a reasonable support system, rather than an abuse system) have collapsed, but later we learn that a five-dollar bill she earned for a blowjob keeps her from pulling the trigger -- at least, on herself. As she soon explains to her new friend, lover and unwitting accomplice Selby (Christina Ricci), if she were to kill herself, it would mean that she would never get to spend the fiver, meaning that she provided the fellatio gratis. Thus, cobbling together her splinters of self-esteem, she decides to explore life a little longer. Holy shit.
The core of the film concerns the relationship between misunderstood lesbian Selby -- who's been dispatched to conservative Floridian relatives to "cure" her of gayness -- and Aileen, who isn't gay but desperately craves love, trust and kindness. Alcohol and loneliness open the floodgates, and the girls' respective passions provide the deluge. Soon they're more or less on the lam, and the movie rides a line somewhere between the charm of Thelma & Louise and the ghastliness of the French sexploitation flick Baise-moi. With lost, co-dependent Selby providing at least the illusion of emotional security, Aileen tries to become the breadwinner, fails, and falls back into hooking. When a heinous redneck john tries to steal her paltry vestiges of honor, and probably her life, Aileen defends herself . . . and is drawn down a sporadically violent, reactionary path of rage where the signposts of common sense are no longer legible.
This is a powerhouse of a film, but not for the obvious reasons that it's about a female serial killer, scampering lesbians, and whatever. The project's strength instead emerges from a sense of nobility and purpose in honoring its characters. Yes, Theron sports a wildly upsetting "white trash" guise, including bad hair, missing eyebrows, contact lenses, thick makeup, extra blubber, fake teeth, and butt-ugly tee shirts (she even steals a Colorado fisherman's baseball cap from her first kill), but only the cosmetically minded will stop there. In their depiction, Theron and director Patty Jenkins (who personally interacted with the real Wuornos, read her journals, etc.) get to the heart of the matter, which is that this criminal is a badly damaged human. (Her kill hand is even selective, in one case literally touching, before her madness more fully claims her.) The tug of war they conduct between morality and sympathy for the devil is truly astonishing.
One can nit-pick for flaws here, but about all you'll find is that Theron's "costume" suggests a whiff of stunt casting (easily nullified by her knockout performance) and that Jenkins is more a matter-of-fact director than a stylistically intriguing one. Fair enough. It also appears that Bruce Dern, who appears as Wuornos' only "family" and occasional john, may be present exclusively to find out why his own actress-daughter became so darned weird following her appearance in the magnificent and prescient crazy-girl movie Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains.
Otherwise, this movie's script is a gift to the world's screenwriting teachers, vigorously marking each step of Aileen's decline while filling each scene with indelible poignancy. From Aileen and Selby's plummet into lust at a chipper skating rink (with Blondie, INXS and Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" setting the mood) to an absolutely stunning visual reveal (film term, folks) in the dénouement, Jenkins reveals herself to be a gifted new talent.
Also noteworthy is Ricci's wonderful performance, which seems, at first, to be similar to her other roles (it could be the same girl from Pumpkin), but then feels genuinely dramatically strenuous. Playing second fiddle to Theron's big freak here could have been a real drag, but Ricci greets the challenge with the air of a consummate professional. From escaping her mad, gun-loving family to realizing, at last, that her queer friends might offer better shelter than her murderess girlfriend, Ricci gives us a superb turn. Only the thickest of skulls would fail to perceive the resonance of her work.
Of course, it's Theron's show, and the compassion she helps us to extend to Wuornos -- and the beleaguered feminine aspect of anyone -- is unforgettable. Particularly moving is the sequence in which she battles to earn a straight living. The smug judgment-and-expulsion of her interviewers is something many have felt, and its delivery here drives home the significance of Wuornos' spiral. Simply, it reminds us that when someone is begging for just a tiny handhold, it's probably best to offer it. Even if they're an actress.