1. Can anyone love someone like Aileen Wuornos? Or is
the problem that no one seems to have ever done so convincingly?
These are the questions that Aileen Wuornos: Life And Death
Of A Serial Killer presents, in a sometimes shaggy, but frequently
fascinating, documentary. It is a follow-up to to Aileen Wuornos:
The Selling Of A Serial Killer (1992).
Who is Aileen Wuornos? Some over-emphasized, but essential, categories:
Homeless: Since the age of 13.
Hooking: A way to make a “living.” According to the
documentary, she began trading blowjobs for cigarettes from the
age of 9. When she became homeless, hooking became a way to survive
and get food, and occasionally, shelter in a motel room if she
was lucky. Customers included men and boys who knew her and men
and boys who did not.
Hitchhiking: Since the age of 16. Hitchhiking presented her with
an endless series of anonymous customers, and perhaps the illusion
of being on the move.
Hellion: According to various lovers and others who knew her,
Wuornos was prone to rages and sometimes violent behavior.
Homicidal: Billed as “America’s First Female Serial
Killer”—a definition she articulately negotiates during
the film—Wuornos killed seven of her johns in the period
of a year.
Three additional categories that came to mind after seeing the
Heartbreaking: Keep reading the review to find out why.
Help: In desperate need of it, all her life.
Hopeless: Open to question.
2. The film’s title sounds like a tabloid article, but
don’t let it fool you into thinking this is a sensationalistic
film, a mere peepshow into the dirty life of a lurid woman. Don’t
be taken in by the involvement of co-director Nick Broomfield
either, whose previous credits (Kurt And Courtney,
Biggie And Tupac, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam)
make him sound like a celebrity ambulance chaser. He’s got
a thing for famous folks in trouble.
I might as well admit that my curiosity about Wuornos isn’t
exactly pure either. In all honesty, anyone who buys a ticket
to this film may as well admit on some level that he or she wants
to be shocked, that there is a whiff of the carnival freak show
in seeing such a film, of titillation in getting so close to such
a borderline personality. And let’s be practical. In order
to find a distributor and make money, a little sensationalism
can go a long way in the marketplace to sell a film like this
and probably will.
3. This documentary includes Broomfield’s interviews with
Wuornos on Florida’s Death Row, interviews with family members,
and footage from her various trials. The film stands on its own
as a provocative piece, but the best way to see it is in conjunction
with Monster, currently drawing crowds who want to see
glamour-puss Charlize Theron morph into a killer with sun
damage, cellulite, and uneven teeth—her alter (altered)
Monster is a reenactment of Wuornos’s love affair
with another woman, and of the killings that took place while
they were involved. The film succeeds in communicating Wuornos
as so desperate for love and for a home, and at the same time
so enraged by the abuse she suffered at the hands of men, that
the killings serve a double function for her. They provide cars
and cash from her victims to help her find a place to live with
her girlfriend and they offer a chance for her take control of
people she perceives as direct threats to herself.
Broomfield and Church’s documentary does two important
things: It proves that Charlize Theron gives a great, three-dimensional
performance as Aileen by providing ample opportunity to see the
real article onscreen. It also gives us what Monster does
not have time to include. Monster temporally compresses
events. It begins when Wuornos meets her girlfriend, shows the
crimes as they occur, and ends as, convicted, she is taken off
to jail. The documentary provides the audience with the before
and after: where Wuornos came from and what her life was like
for 12 years on Death Row. Both films provide a complex, contradictory
portrait of a complicated woman. Taken together, they make Wuornos
4. Rather than providing obvious graphic details signaled at
manipulative dramatic intervals, one shocking detail after the
next simply accumulates in passing during the documentary. This
may actually be the result of colorless filmmaking or an attempt
to foment a more “realistic” documentary feel. The
presentation of this material may be cinematically matter-of-fact,
but it is hard to imagine that the cumulative impact would not
deeply move and disturb anyone.
Over the course of the film, fragments of Aileen’s life
emerge and she is redefined. During her time on Death Row, Wuornos
adds and subtracts from herself, or from our perspective about
her. Ultimately, she wants to take control of her life story—which
has been licensed repeatedly to profit others—and ironically
use it to agree to die.
In 1990, she resists the term “serial killer” as
imprecise: “It’s the principle. The numbers don’t
matter.” She insists that she killed in self-defense, claiming
that her first murder victim poured acid into her after raping
In 2000, exhausted by her stay on Death Row, she calls Broomfield
to ask for an interview claiming she made up the self-defense
story; she just needed cash and to dispose of witnesses. Later,
when she thinks the cameras aren’t rolling, she tells Broomfield
that she can’t claim self-defense or her lawyer will use
it to prevent her from being put to death.
In her final interview with him, she refuses to make the distinction
at all, denying him or anyone else the satisfaction of an answer
about who she is and what she did: “You can end your documentary
with a big question mark, Nick!” Instead, it ends with the
bizarre assurance of the power of personality to survive what
happens to it, albeit in scarred forms. Emotional, articulate,
fighting for herself and possession of her own story, Wuornos
is fierce and obviously mentally fragile at the same time. It
is astonishing that she was not found mentally incompetent, which
would have saved her from execution. However, she can be lucid
and then talk about how the prison is trying to control her with
radio waves in the same conversation. The only consistency is
that she is, without fail, fully present, insisting on her own
5. After the documentary was over, I kept wondering what Wuornos’
opinion would be of Broomfield and Church’s film and how
it lays her bare, or how she might feel about providing Charlize
Theron with an opportunity to legitimize herself in the acting
community, to be loved for portraying someone whom no one loved
I watched Wuornos speak fiercely in defense of her reality in
the compelling documentary devoted to “portraying”
her life and death. I wanted her to be alive today so I could
hear what she might have to say, as unnerving as it might be,
about these representations of herself. But that would defeat
her purpose, which was to die, wouldn’t it?