South African waif Charlize Theron is a seemingly unlikely but ultimately ideal candidate for realizing the challenging lead role here. As Aileen "Lee" Wuornos, the very real woman executed in Florida in 2002 for killing six men, Theron gets to turn her cinematic sexuality on its head, then bash it senseless. In a performance as sensationally transformative as Robert De Niro's in Raging Bull but even more powerful, Theron -- who could have joined the herds of pretty nobodies -- gets to immerse herself in the crudities of humanity, any good actor's dream. It's hard to tell what Theron is drawing upon to manage this metamorphosis -- possibly the potential exploitation of her chosen field or the validation associated with sparkly trophies -- but whatever it is, it's dynamite.
In an elegant framing device, we encounter Aileen as she's sitting under a highway overpass, wielding a big pistol and contemplating suicide. Later, we learn that a five-dollar bill she earned for a blow job keeps her from pulling the trigger -- on herself, at least. As she explains to her new friend, lover and unwitting accomplice, Selby (Christina Ricci), killing herself would keep her from spending the fiver, meaning that she provided the fellatio gratis. Cobbling together her splinters of self-esteem, she decides to explore life a little longer.
The core of the film follows the relationship between misunderstood lesbian Selby -- who's been dispatched to conservative Floridian relatives to "cure" her of gayness -- and Aileen, who isn't gay but desperately craves love, trust and kindness. With lost, codependent Selby providing at least the illusion of emotional security, Aileen tries to become the breadwinner, fails and falls back into hooking. When a redneck john tries to steal her paltry vestige of honor -- and probably her life -- Aileen defends herself and is drawn down a sporadically violent, reactionary path of rage, where the signposts of common sense are no longer legible.
This is a powerhouse of a film, but not for the obvious reasons. Its strength instead emerges from a sense of nobility and purpose in honoring its characters. Yes, Theron sports bad hair, missing eyebrows, contact lenses, thick makeup, extra blubber, fake teeth and butt-ugly T-shirts, but only the cosmetically minded will stop there. In Jenkins' tight, engrossing, perfectly structured narrative (some elements of which are fictionalized in the interest of streamlining), the writer-director (who interacted with Wuornos and read her journals) and Theron get to the heart of the matter, which is that this criminal is a badly damaged human. The tug-of-war they conduct between morality and sympathy is astonishing.
As a director, Jenkins is more matter-of-fact than stylistically intriguing. But her script is a gift to the world's screenwriting teachers, vigorously marking each step of Aileen's decline while filling each scene with indelible poignance. Jenkins reveals herself to be a gifted new talent.
Playing second fiddle to Theron's big freak could have been a real drag, but Ricci gives a superb turn. Only the thickest of skulls would fail to perceive the resonance of her work.
Of course, it's Theron's show, and the compassion she extends Wuornos is unforgettable. She reminds us that when someone is begging for just a tiny handhold, it's probably best to offer it -- even if that someone is an actress.