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.”