Monster is less a movie about the death penalty than a portrait of American misery. But Aileen Wuronos is, in Patty Jenkins’ masterful and disturbing movie, simultaneously the most unnerving and maybe the most deserving of pity guilty murderer we’ve explored in this series.
One of the things that’s striking about the story of her deprivation and abandonment is how it emerges through the movie. While we see her bathing and drying her hair in a public bathroom, trying to buy herself a few more minutes to get ready for the day, we don’t know until nearly the end of the movie that she had and gave up a baby at 13, or that she was repeatedly raped as a child. She tells us about the ferris wheel she loved as a child — “They called it the Monster. As a kid, I thought it was about the coolest thing I’d ever seen.” — in essentially the same tone that she delivers off-hand accounts from an absolutely brutalized life. When she and Selby, a feckless young girl who takes her in, have their first real date at a roller rink, kissing for the first time to “Don’t Stop Believing,” it’s a brilliant use of the song because it’s so sick given what’s to follow, and the basic desperation of Aileen’s existence. There isn’t a single trauma that’s a signpost in her life, a moment that fractured an otherwise peaceful existence. Murder may be a step up for her, but people have done everything to her other than murder her. “I loved her,” Aileen explains after her lover Selby has helped capture her confession on a wiretap. “And the thing that no one either realized about me, or believed, was that I could learn.” But it takes much more than one successful relationship, especially where one partner is urging the other to keep working as a prostitute to support her, to give someone the skills she needs to survive in society, or a reasonable expectation that society will protect her. “Where there’s life, there’s hope. They gotta tell you something,” Aileen tells us as she’s being led out of court after being sentenced to death.
So are Wuronos’ murders justified? The first one certainly is self-defense. The site of Aileen tied up, bloody, of her attacker pouring rubbing alcohol into the gash on her head, raping her — it’s absolutely horrific. And after she shoots him to stop the attack, watching her shriek, keen, slam the hood of the car is one of the rawest I’ve ever seen on film, and perhaps the only performances I’ve seen that gave me an actual sense of what it would feel like to kill another person. And in that sense, that, and a scene at the end where, packing Selby off so she won’t be caught, Aileen breaks down into incoherence, sobbing, “Maybe if I just get a little help, you know, you can help me. You can help me, help me, if you could forgive me, ’cause I don’t know if I can forgive myself,” are probably the most powerful arguments against the death penalty in the movie. I have no idea how I could bring myself to cause the death of another person, even if that death is sanctioned by the state, without suffering extreme trauma — Werner Herzog makes that same point with former death house captain Fred Allen in Into the Abyss.
But after that initial murder, Aileen keeps killing even when she isn’t under attack, asking clients to take her deep into the woods so she can kill them in relative isolation. The crimes are premeditated, and for profit, and the movie leaves it somewhat ambiguous whether Aileen would have continued her killing spree if Selby hadn’t been pressuring her to support both of them. Her clients may be unattractive individuals, but that doesn’t mean that their murders are in any way justified. And when, at the conclusion of her trial, Aileen shouts, “Thank you, judge. Rot in hell. Sending a raped woman to death,” there’s something decidedly unsympathetic about her self-justification. Monster is less a movie about eliminating the death penalty than about all the other things that go wrong before it comes into play. Some people may simply be on an inevitable path to murder. But the death penalty’s an insufficient remedy for people who commit murder after a lot of other things go wrong along the way.