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Aileen: The Life And Death Of A Serial Killer (2004)

Lantern Lane Entertainment

Official Site

Directors: Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill

Producer: Jo Human


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 movie:

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) ego.

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 fully human.

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 her.

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 being.

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 at all.

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?

—Ellen Whittier

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