Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer
Directed by Nick Broomfield, Joan Churchill. (2003, NR, 89 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 6, 2004
As a documentarian, Nick Broomfield has always been something of a sensationalist – just look at some of his recent titles as evidence: Biggie and Tupac, Kurt & Courtney, Fetishes, and Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer is his second documentary about Aileen Wuornos, the highway prostitute who was executed in 2002 for the murders of seven men along Florida highways. (In 1992, he released Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer.) The timing of his new movie’s release seems suspiciously close to that of the other Wuornos movie out now, Monster, which is garnering so much attention for its deglamorized star Charlize Theron. Surprisingly, although Broomfield and co-director Joan Churchill’s interviewing technique and camerawork still leave much to be desired, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer is a valuable and insightful contribution to the mountain of Aileen Wuornos speculation and documentation. As is usual in a Broomfield doc, the filmmaker is as much the focus of the story as the subject, and this new one is no different. It begins where the last one left off, telling us that Broomfield had remained in touch but had no plans for filming a second documentary. But then he was subpoenaed by the defense to testify in her final appeal before execution, and upon seeing him in the courtroom Wuornos asked to record some final interviews with him. How could a filmmaker say no? What emerges is a stunning document that leaves little doubt as to the unstable state of Wuornos’ sanity at the time of her death (although the state of Florida had ruled her competent only hours before, she is heard spouting flagrantly schizophrenic charges about the various forms of mind control she has been subjected to) and a persuasive argument against the death penalty. Broomfield rails against all the profiteers, including prison guards and family members, who’ve sought to cash in on the Wuornos notoriety, and goes so far as to say that he regards Wuornos as the only honest one of the lot. This, despite the fact that she contradicts herself constantly and recants her original argument of self-defense. In a moment when Wuornos thinks the cameras aren’t running, Broomfield gets her to admit that her reversal is a ploy to have her sentence carried out swiftly: She wants to die and be done with this life. The filmmakers also journey to her home in Troy, Mich., to speak with family members and her one friend about the horrendous series of life events that led to her departure from Michigan for the sunnier Florida weather. It becomes unmistakably clear that Wuornos’ wretched childhood and young life is representative of a deep failure within American society to adequately protect our young and defenseless. This becomes part of the movie’s argument against capital punishment. Some criminals are victims, too. And even though some filmmakers are hucksters, too, sometimes they have the goods. RIP, Aileen.