Two superlatives apply to writer/director Patty Jenkins' "Monster": best actress and grimmest film of 2003.

Two superlatives apply to writer/director Patty Jenkins' "Monster": best actress and grimmest film of 2003. Charlize Theron ("The Italian Job") transformed physically (30 pounds and prominent prosthetic teeth) and mentally (Theron not for a second leaves her character) into serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Theron is every reason to see this account of an abused, disturbed hooker turned murderer (convicted in 1992 of at least 6 murders, one probably in self defense); nothing else in the film is unusual storytelling or acting, not even graphically as compelling as this sure Oscar nominee. She embodies Brendan Francis's description of prostitutes as "women of action. Talk is not their stock in trade."

The grimness of the film comes directly out of the subject matter: a story about a prostitute without Julia Roberts in the lead or a benign twist just won't keep an American audience's attention, especially if there is more graphic display in a current teenage slasher flick. So the audience for "Monster" is likely to squirm at the least or be revolted at Aileen's rough persona and meaningless life, filmed in dark tones with little color, not even much red blood. The intellectual satisfaction of understanding how this murderer got into a violent mess cannot mitigate the desire to leave the theater the way you would leave a smoky bar because you were stuck next to a sweaty biker dude with garish tattoos and a foul mouth.

Christina Ricci ("The Ice Storm") plays Aileen's 18-year-old Ohio lesbian friend, Selby, in such a mysterious way as to make it uncertain if she is acting well or not at all. Selby eventually testifies against Aileen, but even during their most passionate moments as lovers, where Aileen acts out the male, protective role, Selby's motivation for her attraction to Aileen is unclear and hardly believable given the physical, social, and emotional distance between the two.

Theron trumps easily last year's Oscar winner Nicole Kidman in "The Hours," where her nose could hardly compete with Theron's entire body. Kidman's understated Virginia Woolf required much less range than Theron's sneering, fleshy, manic Aileen Wuornos. Closest to Theron's triumph is Hillary Swank's 1999 Oscar winning performance as Teena Brandon turned Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry, " another tragic story of a sexual misfit and murder. Though Swank's performance required a more refined protagonist than Theron's, both actresses made the bizarre believable.

Naomi Watts in "21 grams" and Patricia Clarkson in "Station Agent" and "Pieces of April" are worthy of 2003 Oscar nominations. They will have to wait, however, until another year, for this one belongs to Charlize Theron, an actress so attractive in "Cider House Rules" that I thought she would never compromise her blonde, cherry-lipped supremacy. She did, and she will win for that surrender.