Dir: Patty Jenkins. US. 2003. 110 mins.

Two documentaries by Nick Broomfield may have told the Aileen Wuornos story vis a vis the American justice system and media, but Patty Jenkins tells the human story of the woman in her dramatization Monster, a low-budget character study which was released domestically at the end of the year to qualify for awards consideration.

Not as grim as might be expected, Monster is nevertheless a harrowing account of the last months of Wuornos' freedom from 1989 to 1990 in Daytona Beach, Florida, and the six murders she commits. The film also follows the love affair Wuornos has with Selby Wall, a lesbian battling with her parents who are trying to rid her of her homosexuality. Was Wuornos a monster, the film asks, or just a victim of the brutal society around her.

Newcomer Jenkins, whose background is in commercials and music videos, makes a brave and balanced attempt at giving some context to the sordid life of the woman, who was abandoned by her parents and working as a prostitute by the age of 13.

But what sets the film apart from any other true life story is the central performance by Charlize Theron who tears into the character of Wuornos with unexpected ferocity and positively becomes her. The screen goddess gained 30lbs to play the role, wore some complexion makeup and a mouthpiece but no prosthetics, and is almost unrecognisable in the part, assuming body movements, gestures and facial tics befitting the character.

And, while capturing the external crudeness which Wuornos showed the world in court, Theron also injects the character with a bruised and brutish tenderness like a dog licking its wounds after years of fighting. It's a raw, unrefined and mesmerising performance which will not only guarantee the film publicity and high profile when it opens around the world but should surely lead to awards recognition and a probable Oscar nomination.

The subject matter will turn many off seeing the film, but the performance will resonate with specialised audiences in the same way as happened with Boys Don't Cry, another bold performance-driven slice of grim true-life Americana, in 1999.

In this instance, we first meet Wuornos when she wanders into a lesbian bar in a rainstorm and gets chatting to Wall (played by Christina Ricci) who is in Florida staying with her aunt, a move which her distraught parents think is a remedy for her lesbian tendencies.

Although she doesn't think she's attracted to women, Wuornos is touched by Wall's attentions and kindness and the two fall in love. Wall moves out of her aunt's house and they take up in a motel, but in order to finance their accommodation, Wuornos goes back to hooking (although she does try to get legitimate work in one heartbreaking montage).

During a particularly brutal encounter with a john in which she is almost beaten and raped to death, Wuornos kills her customer and steals his car, but as the brattish Selby becomes more demanding and Aileen's anger at her lot more intense, she starts to kill more frequently. Her final killings are unprovoked and gratuitous, and for those who might object to a film in which Wuornos is portrayed with a certain degree of empathy, Jenkins makes no bones about the atrocities of which she was guilty.

Prod cos: K/W Productions, Denver & Delilah Films in association with VIP Medienfonds 2, MDP Filmproduktion, Media 8 Entertainment. DEJ Productions
US dist:
Newmarket Films
Int'l sales:
Media 8 Entertainment (+ 1 310 226 8300)
Exec prods:
Sammy Lee, Meagan Riley-Grant, Stewart Hall, Andreas Grosch, Andreas Schmid
Charlize Theron, Mark Damon, Clark Peterson, Donald Kushner, Brad Wyman
Patty Jenkins
Steven Bernstein
Prod des:
Edward T McAvoy
Jane Kurson, Arthur Coburn
Main cast:
Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen, Scott Wilson, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Annie Corley