Let me begin this review by saying that, no, Charlize Theron's performance in Monster has not, in my opinion, been overrated. Her accomplishment is to allow the audience to know, if not empathize with, a serial killer. This humanization of a villain is not the same as creating sympathy. I would compare it to Daniel Day-Lewis's turn as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York (2002), in that both performances involve larger-than-life characters, distanced from the realm of the audience's understanding by the depth of their "evil," for lack of a better word. More precisely, the moral standpoints they occupy are so far removed (one would hope) from that of the audience that it takes a massive amount of work for the actor to render the character knowable. The way this task is accomplished is by grounding the performance in details. Every gesture, twitch, look, motion, and repeated line of Theron's acting job is so precise and ultimately so convincing we forget that the normally beautiful actress is even there, behind all the makeup and the gained weight. We forget there even was a makeup job. Wuornos comes alive on the screen in the same way that Bill the Butcher does: in fact, Theron must go even further, for she plays the role of protagonist instead of antagonist, and hardly a scene goes by for which she is not the catalyst. It's hard to describe this genuine feat of acting without referring to the little things: the way Wuornos bites her lip, the way she pulls back her hair, the way she struts into a room or swings wildly from one mood to the next, even the way she says "Fuck you!" (if you haven't seen the movie, you'll know what I mean once you do). On a broader level, the emotional scope of the role is equally astounding. By the end of the film, we have seen Wuornos proud and desperate, happy and sorrowful, frightening and pathetic, proud and timid. We haven't just witnessed a performance: we've witnessed a life.
To be fair, much of the power of the film should be credited to first-time writer/director Patty Jenkins. The movie has a momentum that so many other comparably grim films lack. There's a real storytelling drive that propels us headfirst through the cataclysmic changes in Wuornos's life and character. The scenes are perfectly timed, the overall rhythm and tempo ebbs and flows appropriately, and the sense of impending doom by the third act is well-handled. That said, I had problems with the movie's ending. (Spoilers ahead!) It was too melodramatic: the swell of music, the bitterly ironic last lines, the light flooding in. I would have preferred a quieter, subtler conclusion to such a shattering drama: a still, maybe, of a face or an object - something that would let us contemplate and reflect, rather than force-feed us the film's ironies. Bergman knew how to step back and scale down when necessary in his darkest and most despairing works. Monster's ending feels less assured than the rest of the film - a little rushed and a little too explicit.
There were other minor occasions where I felt Jenkins reached too readily for quick effects, but on the whole I would say the movie was excellent. There's an art to creating a flesh-and-bone character out of a "monster," so to speak. Shakespeare knew how to do it, and I think Jenkins and Theron do as well. Continuing in this "monstrous" vein, for my next post I'll take a closer look at another murderer, Bill the Butcher, beginning what will be a series of posts explaining why I believe Gangs of New York to be the greatest film of our time. But that's for later. . .