Prostitute and murderer Aileen Wournos wants to be president of the United States. Or so she says one night to her lover, Selby Wall, in Patty Jenkins’ debut film “Monster.” Drunk, half-asleep and smiling, Aileen puts aside the fact that she can’t even get a job and rambles on into the night. She truly believes that there’s something better on the horizon. It’s this belief that drives Wournos to steal money from and murder seven of her johns to provide for a suitable lifestyle. The real-life Wournos was tried and convicted for these crimes in Florida and executed in 2002, touted in the media as the first female serial killer.

In the early scenes of “Monster,” Aileen speaks of her past in voice-over narration. Abused since she was five and abandoned by her family in her early teens, Aileen turns to hooking for a steady income. With her psyche constantly in shambles, this is the only way Aileen thinks she can survive. But even with such misery she still desires what in today’s standards seems like the stuff of fairytales. Love and loyalty feel so far away yet at the same time appear just out of reach.

Monster deals with the events surrounding Aileen’s relationship with her partner, Selby, leading up to and during the killing spree. Aileen and Selby, played with striking power by Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci, respectively, meet at a bar and begin a chaotic and co-dependent relationship that sparks illusions of hope and long periods of disappointment. Aileen sees her dreams in Selby’s eyes, rays of hope in a world overcome with gloom. Selby, on the other hand sees Aileen as an escape from her Bible-thumping parents and an outlet for her sexually experimental tendencies.

Often brutal and always captivating, “Monster” addresses the idea of the American dream gone terribly awry. As in her desire to be the president, Aileen’s reality is askew, her past consistently blurring her good intentions for a happy future. Every ounce of this deadly mixture of determination and ignorance comes out in Theron’s masterful performance. Not only does the usually stunning Theron take on the hideous physical features of Wournos, she manages to embody the tragic eagerness and desperation Aileen cannot overcome.

However, while most critics are howling over the extremely impressive performance by Theron, the movie itself deserves credit as well. “Monster” works foremost as a character study, constructed with visual power around a person whose quest for a better life has tragic results. Jenkins uses music – a steady combination of upbeat pop songs and slower paced instrumentals – to orchestrate a rhythmic accompaniment to the grays and blacks of the cinematography. While the audio hints at an exciting future, the visuals depict an environment filled with dark corners and endless stretches of ominous highway. Aileen is caught between these two worlds, cursed to watch her life disintegrate with frustration.

In trying to understand Wournos’ actions, “Monster” never falls prey to purely sentimental feelings. She’s guilty as sin, but great importance is placed on trying to understand her motives. “Monster” never stops asking this question, especially when the darkest of deeds and the best of intentions seem to be tearing Aileen Wournos apart.