Monster (2003, Patty Jenkins)
You won’t recognize Charlize Theron in this film, and only part of it is makeup and weight gain. She’s so thoroughly transformed herself into Aileen Wuornos, roadside prostitute and serial killer, that only hints of her identity are visible. She can’t help being beautiful at times, but that only makes her performance that much more heartbreaking.
Aileen Wuornos was executed in 2002 in Florida after having been convicted of killing six men. She pled self-defense. It may be hard to believe that killing six different men at six different times could be self-defense, but Wuornos was defending something more than simply her life. Perhaps one could call it her soul.
Patty Jenkins and Theron don’t come as apologists for Wuornos. Theron has noted that she never asked for pity. Instead, they come to make her human, and they succeed. Christina Ricci is also stellar as Selby Wall, the lover that Aileen thought could save her, but eventually betrayed her for fear of punishment. Notable as well is the fact that the film manages to portray a lesbian relationship without resorting to exploitative sex scenes and prettifying in any way the women involved. Lest you fear that this is a man-hating movie, though, be assured that it’s not. Though several men are evil, there are women who are just as despicable, and men who are positive influences. Their love and desperation are evident, and the brilliant acting as well as great script and directing by Jenkins makes you wonder who the Monster of the title is.
21 Grams (2003, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
The title 21 Grams doesn’t refer to drugs, as most people seem to think when hearing it. Instead, it refers to the legendary weight a person loses upon death. The weight of a soul. The film, by the director of Amores Perros, is a meditation on life, death, love, and fate, and the interaction of three lives.
Sean Penn is as brilliant here as he was in Mystic River, playing a mathematician, unhappily married and desperately in need of a heart transplant. Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro are similarly brilliant, Watts as a woman whose husband and daughters are suddenly killed, and Del Toro as an ex-con and born-again Christian.
The film is told in seemingly random order, scenes flashing forward and backward in time, and only gradually does it start to come together, but the superb acting from the three leads manages to hold interest while you try to piece together the plot. The photography is beautiful, using different color washes and filters to convey different times and places, and helping to make sense out of the disjointed order. 21 Grams is powerful and painful, making you question why things happen and why we do the things we do. The characters are self-destructive and yet desperate to live, but always heartbreakingly human.