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Sympathy for the Monster? 

Thursday, Dec 18 2003
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Photo by Max S. Gerber

WHEN PATTY JENKINS SAT DOWN to write a script for a movie based on the life of Aileen Wuornos, she established several rules to guide her storytelling, but one above all: Tell the truth. It was not a shrewd business move. It meant turning down ready-made deals that came with actors attached. It meant rejecting offers that threatened her autonomy and refusing funding tethered to shooting schedules. In fact, it meant that Jenkins, a recent graduate of the American Film Institute’s directors program who had never before made a movie longer than 20 minutes, couldn’t sell the story in advance at all. “I knew I might be walking away from the only deals I’d ever have,” she says, “but I’d already stepped into this serious moral responsibility. On the one hand I was writing to Aileen and faced with her, and faced with all these victims. On the other hand people were saying to me, ‘Oh, you could shoot for 15 days in Romania with this B-movie actor . . .’ And I thought, I just can’t. I have to write this for myself, even if it appeals to nobody.”

It also meant that Jenkins, with little to go on except news and documentary footage, a handful of letters provided by Wuornos’ best friend, and a correspondence of her own that lasted until Wuornos’ execution last year, had to decide exactly what the truth was. While some other accounts, including Nick Broomfield’s first nonfiction film about the case, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992), had focused on the cynical exploitation of Wuornos’ circumstances and on the shoddy preparation of her legal defense, Jenkins sought out something else — a broader, more emotional truth about “the way people are,” as she puts it, “about how people fuck up. People really fuck up.”

Her completed film, Monster, starring Charlize Theron as Wuornos, tells a story that verges on parable, but it does not tell the story many people expect it to — of a woman victimized by men and society, who killed out of righteous hatred of a sexist culture.

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“I didn’t want to make The Burning Bed,” says Jenkins. “I didn’t want to make a feminist-rage film, because that’s just dull, and untrue. One of the first things I ever told Aileen was that I felt really bad that she either had no sympathy from people, or that she had sympathy based on a lie — from a lot of feminist groups who said she was always a victim and she was raped every time.” But, says Jenkins, forgiveness is meaningless when it’s based on false assumptions. “I wanted to show her as someone who crossed a line. She was wrong. She was a killer. I wanted a way to find compassion for someone who truly did horrible things.”

Depending on how the story is told, why it’s being told and who’s telling it, Aileen Wuornos either ran into a string of violent johns and killed seven times in self-defense, or shot one man in self-defense and murdered six others with little or no provocation, or robbed and killed seven men for no better reason than she wanted to drive their cars and spend the money in their wallets. Some of those men were potential johns. Others may have been innocent of everything except the willingness to aid a hitchhiker. (The first of her victims, Richard Mallory, probably did attack her: Long after Wuornos’ first death sentence was handed down, a journalist dug up a criminal record on Mallory, showing that he had served 10 years for comparable sex crimes.)

Wuornos herself was at best an unreliable narrator and very likely clinically insane, suffering from some variety of bipolar disorder and flooded with delusions of grandeur and stalking evil. In Broomfield’s second Wuornos documentary, The Life and Death of a Serial Killer, due out in January, he shows her in her final days on death row as she insists that Florida State Prison personnel are poisoning her food and bombarding her cell with sound waves. “It explains a lot about why she really had no remorse,” Broomfield told me over the phone from London. “Right to the last interview she was saying, ‘I didn’t do anything that wrong. I did a useful thing, and I helped clean the streets up.’ Which is exactly what someone who’s deeply psychotic would think.” It’s also why a portrait of her life — the portrait a competent lawyer would have constructed — might be more important than another cold repetition of facts.

PATTY JENKINS IS A DISARMINGLY thoughtful woman with long, black, glossy hair and a determined energy that seems to make it hard for her to sit still in a chair when she talks. She speaks with intensity about everything from true-crime stories to pit bull terriers — she once raised one from a month old, holding it inside her sweater while she went to classes at AFI. You get the feeling she does nothing casually, and most things fiercely. She was in high school when the Wuornos story broke, and always remembered “how unlike other serial killers she was — how there were so many scenes I saw on the news that broke my heart.” Several years later, she made a note to herself to make “a Raging Bull–style character film about Aileen Wuornos,” and when the chance presented itself, she and producing partner Brad Wyman were not about to be thrown off course by commercial concerns. Jenkins endured what she calls “Chinese water torture” from investors who didn’t want to squander Charlize Theron’s beauty on a character portrayal — pressure that was easier to resist because Theron herself had signed on as a producer. (“This wasn’t an ordinary acting job,” says Theron. “I was emotionally invested at every level. Even in the marketing.”) She was asked many times to make Aileen a more sympathetic character. “But it was out of the question for me,” she says. “I would rather have just made another film.”

Nor was she intimidated by facts, which, as storytellers from Shakespeare to Janet Malcolm have always known, frequently stand in the way of a greater truth. Jenkins turned Aileen’s lover, called Shelby in the movie and played by Christina Ricci, into a feckless waif instead of the sturdily built, pragmatic ex-lover, Tyria Banks, who appeared on the stand in Broomfield’s documentary. She cast Bruce Dern as a fictionalized best friend, Thomas, to convey that the real-life Wuornos wasn’t so much man-hating as misanthropic. Most of all — and perhaps most controversially — Jenkins imagined Aileen’s killings as having their own narrative arc.

It was, she says, a diligent reconstruction of history, done for deliberate effect. “I wanted the first and the last murder to be like bookends,” she explains. “In the first murder, he’s a murderer and she’s the victim. By the last murder, she’s a murderer and he’s a victim.” As it plays in Monster, Aileen’s first “victim” ties her up, beats her and tortures her with various objects and chemicals. “When she kills him, it’s like, ‘Fuck him, he deserves to die, who cares.’” The last one, however, is a middle-aged man who cries for his wife and pregnant daughter as Wuornos shoots him in the head, execution style. In between come johns of different degrees of indecency, a progression Jenkins hopes will force the audience to examine its own moral hierarchy of victims.

“There’s a point at which I hope people will say, ‘Hey, wait a minute — that guy just wanted a blowjob. Is that punishable by death?’ Because the reason Aileen was capable of killing seven people is that, for a period of time, she believed she could tell the difference. She thought, ‘I’m a feminist hero anyway, I’m getting rid of these guys.’ I wanted very purposefully to show that she can’t tell. You can’t tell. And the thing that ruined her is that she started to realize that she couldn’t be so sure who deserved to die.”

Whatever the response to Monster, Jenkins believes she accomplished what she set out to do. “From the day when I felt like it was technically locked,” she says, “I knew that I had done everything I could to be fair and honest and true and morally responsible and hard-working in telling her story. And I felt at peace in knowing that whatever forgiveness the film gets for her, after her death, was the best she could get.

“As for how it ends up making people feel — well, you can’t count on that.”

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