Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Charlize Theron could have been just another pretty face in the movies, but soon after her debut in 1996’s 2 Days in the Valley, she established herself as a major talent, so raw and vulnerable in The Devil’s Advocate, and then later delivering her Oscar-winning performance in 2003’s Monster. With her latest film Tully opening in theaters, it’s time to look back at her five greatest films…
5. The Italian Job (2003)
Theron struggled to find her footing in the early 2000s, appearing in action duds like Reindeer Games and 15 Minutes (although I have a soft place in my heart for the underrated Trapped). She was prolific for sure, but her breakthrough year didn’t come until 2003, when she transformed like few actors had before in Monster, and also teamed up with Mark Wahlberg to fight the evil (and contractually obligated) Edward Norton. The Italian Job is super fun, with strong characters, infectious humor, and dazzling action sequences.
4. Young Adult (2011)
Theron’s first collaboration with director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody (Tully, of course, is their second) is a compelling examination of an author who’s nowhere near where she wants to be in her life and struggles to find her place. I was slightly mixed about the film at the time, but I enjoyed it a lot on my second watch recently, especially now that I’m writing young adult novels of my own. The supporting cast, including Patton Oswalt in a memorable turn, is terrific, and Theron’s uncompromising performance is one of her best.
3. The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
The first film that really showed Theron’s chops as an actress was this silly but always weirdly entertaining Taylor Hackford film from 1997, where Al Pacino is the Devil, Keanu Reeves plays an ambitious young lawyer, and Theron plays Reeves’ wife who’s so full of verve and spirit at the film’s beginning but slowly descends into an unstable and wounded soul.
2. Monster (2003)
Although she’s made better choices than others throughout her two-decades-long career, Theron made her absolute best choice with Monster, a fascinating biopic from director Patty Jenkins about serial killer Aileen Wuornos that is extremely hard to watch at times but also exhilarating, especially as you witness the glory of a gifted actress showing the world everything she’s capable of. This is one of the all-time great performances, one that goes beyond a mere physical transformation to create a deeply flawed and tragic human being rarely captured on film.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
One of the best action films of the decade that features one of the great female performances of the decade, Mad Max: Fury Road was one of the most astonishing theatrical experiences I’ve had since I was a kid. Theron’s badass Furiosa is a unique cinematic creation, a woman who manages to say so much without ever opening her mouth, who shows her strength through both her tremendous physicality and her moments of startling vulnerability. I’ve seen this masterclass action movie three times, and I can’t wait to watch it again.
Watching Like a Writer: Mad Max: Fury Road made such an impression on me that it actually inspired one of my latest novels, a young adult thriller that takes place in real time as two brothers spend a long night struggling to outrun a trio of demons who want them dead. I wanted to capture that feeling Mad Max: Fury Road delivers to everyone who watches it, that breathless pacing that never lets up.
Exercise! Write a flash fiction short story that never breaks away from propulsive action and rising tension. From the first sentence to the last, there can be no reflection, no pausing to think. Who is your main character? What is the conflict?
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