In recent days, filmgoers have been able to make their own problems seem miniscule by attending such sad, depressing fare as House of Sand and Fog and 21 Grams. But those are walks in the park compared to Monster.

When this one is over, and people drag their exhausted bodies out of their seats, thinking back to the words "based on a true story" at the beginning, a couple of things will occur in their minds. They'll inevitably think, "How could this happen?" And then, maybe when they see the poster on the way out, they'll say, "That was Charlize Theron?"

Theron is the most startling component of this story about a down-on-her-luck prostitute turned serial killer in Florida. Just for starters, she put on about 30 pounds, had oddly shaped false teeth fitted for her mouth and a mottled complexion applied to her face. Then she began acting, offering up the best performance of her career.

And, to put it bluntly, it ain't pretty. Theron has played a nasty woman before. Her first major role, in the terrific 1996 film 2 Days in the Valley, was Helga, the demented ice queen girlfriend of the maniacal killer played by James Spader. Although the film became best known for the wildcat fight between Theron and Teri Hatcher, Theron had every eye glued on her in every scene.

This time it's a little harder to do that. In a successful attempt to make her physically similar to the real person, Aileen Carol Wuornos -- here referred to only as Lee -- Theron ends up looking just like Jon Voight when he was playing the character of Manny in Runaway Train. There is not a trace of glamour to be found in this character. And it's not just her looks. It's the way she walks (she doesn't walk, she swaggers) and the way she talks (part of it is the slight speech impediment, the rest is her vulgar language) and the attitude she gives Lee (you do not want to mess with this woman).

Playing opposite her is Christina Ricci as Selby (not the character's real name), the lesbian waif who's out of work, living away from her broken home, and unable to resist falling under the spell of the overpowering Lee.

The script takes some odd directions in showing what makes each of these women tick. Lee is a wreck at the beginning, having lived a hard, troubled life. She's ready to end it all by shooting herself. But she's always been a dreamer, too. One of many voice-overs has her thinking about being a celebrity, or at least being loved, and some short-lived sympathy goes to her and her predicament. But Selby is a mousy, weak-willed loser right from her first scene in a gay bar, looking for a companion just to talk to. Eventually she turns whiny, demanding and pathetic.

These are two very na & iuml;ve women. Selby leaves the family she's been stuck with, but has no plan, or money. And Lee, deciding to give up her nearly life-long career in hooking, gets thoughts of becoming a veterinarian, but has no training or money.

They take up together after realizing there's a definite sexual attraction between them (which they discover at a roller rink when the big-boned Lee tries to teach the comparatively diminutive Selby to skate). They move into a cheap motel where they can drink and smoke, and their fates are sealed.

But those fates are made airtight when, after a series of unlucky menial job interviews and a brush with the cops, Lee returns to hooking and shoots a john who molests her. Then she shoots another one. Then stories of her unhappy past come pouring out, and before long, she's working the streets, hopping into cars, and shooting first, before any guy can put a paw on her, kind of an inverted Jack the Ripper.

There's a little too much use of voice-over with Lee, and despite the bravura performances by both Theron and Ricci, it's difficult to find anything positive about either one of them. Hence, no one to root for. (Most moviegoers like to have someone to root for.) In fact, as Selby gets more annoying and Lee becomes more deranged, it's made clear that there's not going to be a ray of light found anywhere in this nerve-racking movie. Lee may keep telling Selby that she's going to take care of her, but all she really does is drag her deeper into her own dark vortex.

As disturbing and unpleasant as all of this is, it's a devastating piece of acting and filmmaking. Oscar nominations are just around the corner. Look for Theron's name to be among them.

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