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COMBINE THE intensity and depth of Hilary Swank's Oscar-winning performance in "Boys Don't Cry" with the profanity-spouting casual coolness of Julia Roberts' Oscar-winning portrayal in "Erin Brockovich" and you will get a rough idea of the complexity involved in Charlize Theron's Oscar-winning role in "Monster." And yes, like the first two, this is based on a true story too.

"Monster," directed by Patty Jenkins, is a tastefully-fictionalised, sensitively-told, beautifully-crafted, finely-enacted and heavily-censored yet absolutely gripping journey into the psyche of serial killer Aileen Wournos. She was convicted, and later executed, for killing six men in the early 1990s.

If feel-good entertainment is your bag of popcorn, then this is a mugful of bitter chocolate. To Patty's credit, a whole lot of research has evidently gone into fleshing out the screenplay and the screenwriter-director does not tamper with facts.

The film traces the life of Aileen who at seven wants to be in the movies. She does what it takes to be noticed but ends up falling prey to travellers on the highway. She also gets raped by her father's friend, has a baby at 13, gives it away for adoption and turns into a full-fledged hooker on Florida highways.

In fact, the film skirts some of the uglier episodes to keep its focus intact and chooses to tell us more about the relationship between Aileen and Selby (Christina Ricci), a young lesbian coming to terms with her sexuality. And rightfully so, for it is Aileen's love for Selby that sets the stage for the circumstances leading to the killings.

Aileen, on her way to meet Selby, finds a client who turns out to be a perverted psycho-sadistic rapist. After being attacked (we don't know what exactly happens because the Censors snip it), Aileen shoots him in self-defence.

Thereafter, it is drama in the relationship between Aileen and Selby, her attempts to clean up and give up her profession, the pressure of cops cracking down and Aileen's desperate measures to take control of the slipping situation that make for disturbing, depressing yet engaging viewing.

Charlize Theron is first rate, as she gets under the skin of the character and fleshes it out (she puts on about 12 kilos for the role) brilliantly, with ample help from the make-up department (you won't believe that this is Charlize, the supermodel).

Ricci, in an understated performance, plays the perfect foil and the opposite of Aileen with her baby-cute vulnerability. Director Patty Jenkins shows no signs of being just three films old. With her sensitivity and dexterous handling of such a complex tale and characters, she is someone to watch out for.

The revelation scene in the end — the phone conversation between Aileen and Selby — shows her class.


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