Now that it’s all over but the crying of victims’ relatives, who was Aileen Wuornos? Horrific and banal, the bald facts tell the story of a child — abandoned by her mother, brutalized and ignored by men in and out of her lumpen family — who morphed into the town slut and then, still in her teens, a hitchhiking hooker. Somewhere along the line she became a serial killer, allegedly in self-defense, of her johns, until she was caught, tried in the media as well as in the dock, and finally executed in Florida in 2002. The rest, given that Wuornos reversed herself more than once in her account of what happened and why, can only be conjecture. She’s made for the movies, and there’s already been a TV docudrama, rushed out after her arrest in 1991, and two documentaries by Nick Broomfield, who never saw a kinky extremity he didn’t like and yet brings to bear on his hapless subject a sympathetic intelligence.

Now comes Monster, the story of Aileen Wuornos as told by herself, or the self that writer-director Patty Jenkins has given her. The movie, which improbably but persuasively stars Charlize Theron (who also co-produced) as Wuornos, is sufficiently sympathetic in its take on the serial killer’s hapless life to make the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Matt Drudge seethe. But Jenkins, a first-time director of remarkable assurance and sophistication, is no woolly liberal. She seeks neither to explain nor excuse Wuornos, who is shown in the movie as a proactive murderer of her customers, not all of them in self-defense. Jenkins gained access to a pile of apparently very articulate letters Wuornos wrote from prison to the one childhood friend she trusted, and Monster is an attempt to show us how Wuornos saw the world.

The movie, though shot in a true-grit ’70s indie style with echoes of Kimberly Peirce’s 1995 Boys Don’t Cry, is framed — with some nerve and some basis in fact — as a love story between Wuornos and Selby Wall, a lonely, fledgling lesbian she meets in a Daytona Beach bar. They make a comic, pathetic and oddly touching couple. Theron, laboring under alarming prosthetic teeth, several tons of Toni G’s excellent paint job and 30 extra pounds of her own around her hips and butt, works a touch too hard at Wuornos’ macho swagger, and one can hardly blame her — in a shift so radical it’s all but impossible to avoid a showy performance. Still, this gifted actress, who hasn’t always chosen her roles well, treats this as her big chance to show what she can do, and she’s convincing enough that you’re not constantly looking for a Hollywood star of more than average pulchritude under all the cosmetic baggage. When first we see Christina Ricci, undoubtedly a leap of the casting imagination as the parasitical Selby, there’s an urge to laugh. Even in a dykey denim jacket and a cast on one arm, there could hardly be a less butch figure than this creamy-skinned tadpole with her imploring black eyes. Ricci’s role is largely reactive, yet she makes the naively conniving Selby’s power over her older and more worldly lover entirely plausible.

In Monster, Wuornos gives up hooking for Selby’s sake and takes a few tragicomic stabs at finding respectable work — then, at her demanding lover’s urging, returns to hooking to keep the pair in funds. That’s when the killing becomes a habit, but Jenkins wisely doesn’t lay Wuornos’ crimes at Selby’s door. The first murder, a graphic and terrifying encounter with a john who beats her up, rapes her and then throws rubbing alcohol on her wounds, is shown as an act of self-defense in which we also see the first signs of the uncontrollable rage that will make Wuornos a killer capable of firing several rounds into men who make no attempt to rough her up, and into one (sensitively played by Scott Wilson) who offers her nothing but kindness.

Nick Broomfield’s follow-up documentary on Wuornos, filmed in the months leading up to her execution and due for release in January, shows her on death row, dangerous as ever, mad as a hatter, longing for death yet still vitally obsessed with the love of her life — it really was a love story — and with the cop conspiracy she believes to have been responsible for her fall. She also recants, with an appetite that freaks even the unflappable Broomfield, some of the testimony that earlier attracted his sympathy, including the rubbing-alcohol episode. And she has lost the cockeyed optimism that marked her even in extremis. Wuornos was a far more complex creature than most accounts of her will allow, and Patty Jenkins’ tough and tender movie has caught the contradictions of a woman stranded between unwarranted hope and unavoidable despair, a woman who tried to face down a hostile and indifferent world with pathos and bragging, and when all else failed, found it easier to kill others to live her own poor, benighted life.

MONSTER | Written and directed by PATTY JENKINS | Produced by CHARLIZE THERON, MARK DAMON, CLARK PETERSON, DONALD KUSHNER and BRAD WYMAN | Released by Newmarket Films | At the Laemmle Sunset 5

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