Directed by Patty Jenkins, starring Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci and Bruce Dern.

Based on the true story of Aileen Wuornos, an American serial killer who was recently executed, 'Monster' could have been sensationalistic and exploitative. Instead, first time feature director and writer Patty Jenkins, together with her Oscar-winning lead actress, Charlize Theron, has crafted a dark, deeply disturbing and complicated tragedy.

'Monster' is also a love story. Jenkins focuses on the unexpectedly tender relationship between Aileen (Theron) and her lesbian girlfriend Selby Wall (Ricci, playing a fictionalised version of Wuornos' real-life companion). Florida prostitute Aileen is down on her luck when she meets shy, 18-year-old Selby in a gay bar. Although Aileen meets Selby's initial approaches with suspicion and aggression, the younger woman's obvious adoration awakens a fragile optimism and hope in Aileen and the two become lovers.

Jenkins treats the first murder as self-defence. Going out to work to get money for a date with Selby, Aileen is set upon by a client who beats her unconscious, ties her up and rapes her in the film's most brutal and harrowing scene. In fear for her life, she shoots him with his own gun, takes his car and wallet and runs away with her girlfriend. But she can't escape. The ordeal that triggers her murderous rage also seals her fate. She kills again and again - for revenge, for money, to support the increasingly demanding Selby and also because she believes that she can choose who deserves to die. In contrast, her victims and near-victims become more innocent until her last murder is a family man that simply made the mistake of trying to help her.

The beautiful Charlize Theron, who has hitherto been perfectly adequate in roles as a wife, girlfriend or love interest ('The Cider House Rules', 'The Legend of Bagger Vance', 'The Italian Job'), is astounding in 'Monster'. With her delicate features coarsened and disfigured by weight and makeup, she is near unrecognisable but ultimately it is her performance, rather than the physical transformation, that convinces. She portrays Aileen Wuornos as an angry, wounded and desperate woman, brutalised and abused from a young age who grabs with both hands at her one chance of happiness. It makes it easier to understand - and even sympathise - as she self-destructs. She eclipses Christina Ricci, who never really develops the selfish and needy Selby into a character worth feeling for.

Plumbing similar emotional depths as 1999's 'Boys Don't Cry', 'Monster' is a difficult film to recommend yet worth watching for Theron's career-making performance. Intense, heartbreaking and unforgettable.

Caroline Hennessy