It's the late '80s in Florida and lonely prostitute Aileen Wuornos - now remembered as America's first female serial killer - meets and falls for an isolated young lesbian, Selby (based on Wuornos' real-life girlfriend, Tyria Moore).
You might imagine that Charlize Theron's Oscar-winning performance as damaged prostitute and drifter Aileen Wuornos could never live up to the hype. In fact, it's so unnervingly accurate it almost threatens to overshadow the whole film.
Those who've seen either of Nick Broomfields Wuornos documentaries will be rubbing their eyes in disbelief when a prosthetically-altered Theron swaggers into the film's opening scene: she's perfected Wuornos' bug-eyed stare, jerky mannerisms and nervous, toothy grin, never risking caricature thanks to an all-consuming, intense performance.
Intensity is the name of the game in this debut feature from Patty Jenkins, based on conversations and letters from Wuornos before she was executed. Despite their almost comical differences, Wuornos and Selby - a streetwise prostitute and a naive, boyish lesbian (excellently underplayed by Ricci) ù embark on a suffocating relationship that implicitly plays a part in Wuornos' decision to kill.
When she first retaliates in self-defence, she's also defending a fresh notion of self-respect gleaned from the relationship sheÆs determined to survive for. Later, she justifies her murder and robbery of clients because it's to support Selby, but TheronÆs narration as Wuornos also implies psychological trauma caused by childhood abuse and life as a despised outcast.
Like Thelma & Louise, this is about empowerment through masculinisation of behaviour, but Wuornos' empowerment brings little joy, and male victims become more sympathetic as she becomes increasingly ruthless.
'The intensity of the filmÆs focus is a mixed blessing. Resolutely one-track, it follows Wuornos and Selby exclusively, never cutting to cops on the trail as a more conventional serial killer story might. This is a character study, not a thriller, almost parochial in its devotion to its central subject.
Theron's convincing portrayal lends credibility to a story whose truth was laid to rest with its protagonists, and the exploration of her character raises questions about patriarchal middle America and the consequences of its dislike of difference.
Immaculate performances combine with confident, if insular, direction to make this a thought-provoking drama laced with humour and pathos. Oh, and there’s a great soundtrack, too.
Reviewed by Anna Smith