Monster (2003)

charlize theron aileen wuornos

A torturous, depressing biography with an uncannily accurate lead performance.

What a tortured life this woman led; a life of inferiority, confusion, violence, victimisation, prostitution, anger and ultimately, murder. Charlize Theron’s utter transformation is what drives this film, her performance and physical emulation perfectly conveying the desperate pain and impetuous anger of her character. I think the Oscars are not much more than a smug festival of self-celebration, but this performance deserved commendation.

‘Monster’ is the story of Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute from Florida who murdered seven men between 1989 and 1990. One might think that the film’s title would suggest otherwise, but  the film gives a very human representation of Wuornos. She was indeed a ‘monster’ in her final years, but the film’s emphasis on the brutal, relentless path that led to her first killing shows the architecture of such a creation. But not for a second, I hasten to add, does the film condone her violence, she isn’t glorified and she isn’t vilified either, the film is so very downbeat and visceral that it would be impossible for anyone to be allured by it. ‘Monster’ is by no means the tale of one woman standing up against chauvinist pigs; her tale of nature, nurture and the consequences of violence is impartially told.

The film reflects on Wurnos’ childhood, a time of sexual favours, inadequacy, rape and beatings. A narrative gap, which misses a dubious failed marriage and numerous arrests, presents the viewer with a sorry picture, a woman who washes in petrol station toilets, a woman who is desperately trying to survive. She then meets a companion, the vulnerable Selby Moore. It’s at this point that the film strays from the facts; ‘Selby Moore’ is a fictional character, very loosely based, especially in appearance, to Tyria Moore, Wuornos’ lover until her execution.

The pair, who have moved in together, live off Wuornos’ prostitution wage until their relationship is complicated by Moore’s discovery of Wuornos’ taste for violence. The film depicts the first murder as Wuornos described it -self defence. Unlike her later stories, I think this claim has credibility; it’s quite possible that Mallory thought Wuornos was expendable social underclass, an easy thrill without consequence. I respect that the scene was orchestrated in this manner.

Monster is a stark and balanced insight into the frankly miserable life of Aileen Wuornos. You may not like her and all the violence will most likely strain your empathy, but I think you’ll leave the film having a greater understanding of the woman.

80%

American Psycho (2000)

American Psycho

A funny, solid adaptation with a perfectly realised interpretation by Christian Bale.

Christian Bale delivers a superbly realised interpretation of Patrick Bateman; his performance has already become iconic. The nuances of Bateman’s voice, which has an air of arrogance and comical sincerity, are identified by Bale and expertly delivered; Bale’s performance is one of my all time favourites. The truly original narrator, endlessly quotable script and brilliantly dark, idiosyncratic humour have created a large following; it’s the proverbial cult film.

The film follows Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street executive in the prime of his life who is surrounded by equally affluent and aesthetic contemporaries. He is achingly vapid and appears not to have a sincere relationship with anyone, not even his ‘supposed fiancé’ Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon). In Bateman’s world, everything is for surface value, even his job, which he continues with because he ‘wants to fit in’. As the strain of his lifestyle begins to overwhelm him, Bateman begins to indulge in his violent urges.

The film is adapted from Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 controversial novel of the same name. As anyone who has read ‘American Psycho’ will testify, there are passages that are simply unfilmable; the film was always going to be toned down in comparison. However, I feel the film has been neutered somewhat, I feel the film is lacking a visceral edge, it nails the satire, but it isn’t quite dark enough.

As the novel progresses, Patrick Bateman becomes increasingly psychotic and depraved, he descends into the depths of madness, and this isn’t quite captured in the film. As sordid as it sounds, I do believe the film should have been crueller, darker; it should have put more emphasis on the depersonalisation and sadism of Bateman. There is one moment concerning an axe and a raincoat which is thoroughly entertaining and memorable, however it borders almost on slapstick, which it certainly didn’t in the novel. The violence rightfully didn’t enter exploitation cinema territory, I wouldn’t wish for gratuity. But, then again, how do you define gratuitous? At what point does a film or book become gratuitous? These are questions that were at the forefront of my mind when reading the novel, and I think it’s very hard to answer.

Despite this, it is a good adaptation; Harron and Turner’s script is sharp and overall makes good use of its difficult source material. For instance, the film incorporates the book’s music chapters to great comic effect; Bateman expressing his admiration and laughably deep analysis of Genesis, Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis and The News to prospective victims. Through these scenes the viewer witnesses the lengths of Bateman’s vapidity.

It is a rather difficult film to wholly appreciate and absorb on initial viewing, which is good, because I feel ‘American Psycho’ has much replay value; I have revisited both the book and film countless times. Much like the novel, the film polarised audiences, and it doesn’t surprise me. When viewing for the first time, one must appreciate Bret Easton Ellis used a large helping of hyperbole to convey his message of greed and superficiality, and also a good deal of surrealism. The film isn’t entirely rooted in reality. The way in which Bateman’s associates repeatedly forget each other’s names and identities and how Bateman’s actions become questionably implausible may confuse or deter the viewer. However, some would say that in our world of revolting socialites and vacuous celebrity and fashion culture, the extent of American Psycho’s hyperbole is becoming increasingly dubious in places.

‘American Psycho’ is a peculiar creation. Many people get it and love it, however I’m sure many would be perplexed by it, maybe completely disappointed by it. I am biased, but I know that I am one of many people who fully appreciate ‘American Psycho’, part of a large group who will know what you mean when you say ‘I have to return some videotapes’. Some won’t like or appreciate it, and that’s no detriment of the viewer’s, but if you do, then I think you’ll find yourself revisiting the film and picking up a copy of Ellis’ compulsively readable novel. However, regardless of whether you like it, I can guarantee that you’ll never hear Phil Collins’ ‘Sussudio’ in the same way again.

90%

Peeping Tom (1960)

 Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom has undeservedly become a critics’ darling.

Peeping Tom follows Mark Lewis, an introverted voyeur living in his late father’s large London property. To help make ends meet, Mark lets part of the house out to several people. One of his tenants is Helen Stephens, a sweet young woman who befriends him out of pity. Throughout the film Mark struggles to conceal his voyeuristic habit from her.

However, Mark Lewis is not just a peeping tom, he’s a murderer who records his crimes for warped posterity. Despite this, the film is has dated badly – the passage of time has neutered a film that wasn’t particularly disturbing in the first place. Clearly, the film is going to date, it’s 52 years old, but so is Psycho, which covers similar ground but in a appropriately graphic manner.

In a screening of the Hitchcock classic at my local independent cinema, I was surprised by the genuine anxiety I felt during the half-hour or so before the shower scene. This is the film’s defining moment; it is a classic example of a director battering his audience with what they believe is explicit violence when in fact he has shown very little. Michael Powell makes no such illusions in this film – he shows very little, period. For example, in this scene, Mark approaches one of his victims with a blade attached to his camera, and just before the blade makes contact, the woman falls out of frame, shrilly screaming “Mark!”.

Most modern audiences will agree that this just doesn’t cut it anymore. This scene depicts the creation of a snuff film, but it doesn’t feel like it, does it? Mark shares common ground with people like Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, the sordid serial killer partnership whose recordings make for deeply, deeply disturbing viewing. Peeping Tom should feel like a descent into one man’s world of degeneracy, a twisted existence that’s punctuated by lapses into frenzied sexual violence and eroticised death. This can be done without tasteless exploitation, the most germane example I can think of is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). 

Powell should be commended for approaching these darkest of themes, but his work just doesn’t hold up today. To think this film was given an ’18’ certificate as recently as 2001 is nothing short of baffling. The BBFC have since given the film a 15 certificate, but I think a 12 rating would be appropriate.

The lack of visceral edge is exacerbated by poor acting from almost the entire cast. Performances both wooden and overacted drag you further out of the film; it becomes an even bigger problem than its dated violence. However, thanks to Carl Boehm’s generally competent performance, Mark Lewis is the only interesting and somewhat credible character, but even Boehm is guilty of being badly stilted in places.

The only thing that’s noteworthy about this film is its historical audacity. This film was addressing themes that didn’t begin to approach mainstream until the 1970s, the New Hollywood era of rapidly changing opinions on sex and violence. If it had been released 15 years later and not championed by Martin Scorsese and various critics, it may well have faded into obscurity.

50%