Monster marks the impressive debut of writer-director Patty Jenkins and the most extraordinary performance to date of Charlize Theron, who is also one of the film's ten credited producers. Theron plays the film's title character, Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos--already the subject of documentaries, TV movies and an opera. Paradoxically, her bloody crimes grew from love--primitive efforts to provide for the one woman she wanted, Selby Wall (Christina Ricci).

Wuornos' life was brutal from childhood. As Jenkins' gripping and well-written script reveals, Aileen was raped by a friend of her father's at the age of eight, and then beaten by her father, who assumed the child was at fault. By the time Aileen was 13, she was hooking--partly to receive love in any possible way, but also to earn funds. The scene in which she discovers that men actually pay to have sex is classic. Her date is obviously trying to get rid of her immediately after the sex act, while she wants to rest and bask in his affection. When he pulls out a crumpled bill and snarls at her, Aileen finds herself stranded in the middle of nowhere at night, and we know none of it hurts as much as his sudden rejection after intercourse. This dismissal sets the pattern for all of her future relationships.

So it is that she finds herself a decade later with all of her dreams (including being a movie star) down the drain, and not a friend in the world except for an elderly, married, down-and-out Vietnam vet named Tom (Bruce Dern), the only person in her life who gives her food and attention without expecting anything in return.

At the point of suicide, Aileen meets and falls in love with Selby, a na™ve young beauty from an ultra-conservative background who talks about sexual confusion but is just about ready to come out of the closet. They assure themselves they are not lesbian when it is obvious to the audience that each is desperately lonely for the other. Their passion grows quickly into obsession on Aileen's part, eagerness followed by gradual disillusion on Selby's.

Aileen begins picking up men for cash on a busy highway in central Florida, only to encounter a sadistic john who beats her up and ties her down to be tortured at his leisure. Furious--and one of Theron's greatest skills is to render Aileen's quick temper with frightening skill--Aileen undoes her rope and empties her gun into the perpetrator. Though she recoils with horror at her own monstrosity, she must kill again and again in order to preserve the only meaningful love in her life. This serial killer touchingly exposes her inability to control herself--there is nothing cool about Aileen. Not the least of Theron's achievements is the way she reveals Wuornos' simultaneous hatred of johns and visceral horror over the act of murder.

The script is mostly chronological, with the exception of several semi-poetic flashbacks. Throughout are brief, poignant reflections on her life, purportedly taken from actual letters Wuornos wrote during her 12 years on death row.

The cast is stellar. Ricci is persistently annoying but effective as an immature woman, emotionally out of her depth and childishly unaware of how much danger Aileen represents. Dern is concerned and paternal as a would-be friend. Scott Wilson and Pruitt Taylor Vince are remarkable in their cameos as Wuornos victims--each death becomes a tragic event rather than a by-the-numbers accounting. Edward T. McAvoy's production design is tackily on-target, while d.p. Steven Bernstein captures a wide range of moods that underscore Wuornos' turbulent world. But, above all, it is Charlize Theron, much heavier than her normal weight, dispensing with the last shred of glamour and looking like a mirror image of Wuornos, who provides an Academy Award-caliber take on one of the most sorrowful women of our time.

-Bruce Feld