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Theron proves she's the real deal in ‘Monster’

Actress physically transformed to play serial killer Wuornos. By David Germain
/ Source: The Associated Press

With “Monster,” Charlize Theron becomes queen of the self-effacing starlets, eclipsing Nicole Kidman in last year’s “The Hours,” in which she concealed herself behind a prosthetic schnoz to simulate plain-Jane author Virginia Woolf.

It certainly wasn’t the nose that earned Kidman the best-actress Academy Award, though. And it’s not the splotchy makeup, protruding false teeth, dark contact lenses and extra 30 pounds Theron packed on that could make her a front-runner for the current Oscar season.

Theron gives a revelatory performance in “Monster” as prostitute-turned-serial-killer Aileen Wuornos, who was executed in 2002 for the slayings of several of her johns.

Until now, Theron has given some decent performances, often in bad movies, with “The Cider House Rules” arguably her best showcase. But she’s mostly coasted on her striking looks, without giving a clear clue to how deep the serious thespian in her really runs.

An acting showcase“Monster” obscures Theron’s beauty but reveals a fearless actress who comes about as close to a descent into hell as a cinematic fiction can take a performer. Theron is a herky-jerky dynamo of rage, despair, longing, false cockiness and misplaced hope amid a last desperate stab at love with a woman (Christina Ricci) she meets at a gay bar.

Always in motion as Wuornos, Theron moves with an awkward fluidity, as though her body were one big, nervous tic. Her voice is like a thousand others you’ve heard in dive bars: Loud, boastful, angling for attention, straining to be heard above the indifferent hubbub.

Writer-director Patty Jenkins makes a bold, sure-handed film debut, giving Theron’s Wuornos enough slack to elicit twinges of empathy even as her actions provoke deep horror.

The result is much like Robert Blake’s pitiful “In Cold Blood” killer: Repugnance for these murderers cannot help but mix with pathos amid the glimpses both films provide into their tormented souls.

Love and desperation“Monster” opens with Wuornos contemplating suicide after a life of physical abuse and neglect and a lowest-of-the-low existence turning tricks for scummy men who pick her up hitchhiking.

The film only hints at Wuornos’ harsh upbringing, which her attorneys said included sexual abuse as a child. But a powerful scene in which she recollects her siblings’ shabby renunciation of her goes far to establish the character’s heartache.

When Wuornos decides to give the world one last chance to toss her a bone, lesbian wallflower Selby Wall (Ricci) approaches her at the gay bar, where Wuornos has taken refuge to spend her last $5 on cheap beer.

Selby is a lost sheep trying to escape a domineering family, and she latches onto Wuornos as a potential savior, provider and soul mate. Wuornos, so long accustomed to rejection, eagerly assumes the role, her infatuation with Selby driving her to justify killing and robbing her tricks to support them both.

Bruce Dern co-stars as Wuornos’ one true pal, a scruffy Vietnam vet and drinking buddy who accepts her as a kindred crushed soul.

Ricci infuses a cloying neediness in Selby that makes a fine dramatic counterpoint to Theron’s brash bravado. And Selby’s feigned ignorance of her lover’s killing spree establishes an air of complicity that suggests Wuornos is not the only monster in this little domestic unit.