Charlize Theron stars as real life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the new movie "Monster." I hear she’s terrific in it. I haven't seen the film and it might be awhile - if ever - that I do. Right now I still need some distance after viewing Nick Broomfield's documentary "Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer," in which every character gives such a believable performance that you simply want to take a hot shower, hug a child, and curl up in bed.
It must be said that Broomfield was into Aileen before Aileen was hot. Or at least Academy Award hot. Tried as America's first female serial killer for the deaths of 7 men in Florida in the early 1990s, Aileen Wournos could not possibly have escaped a media sensation. Broomfield, an unconventionally self-indulgent documentarian, turned his camera on the criminal justice system and the media itself in his 1992 film "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer." As with all Broomfield's films, the deadpan Brit displayed a knack for getting people to implicate themselves. What a lot of people saw in the sad, feisty and pathetic Aileen Wournos was the chance to make a buck. Even Wournos’ trailer park lawyer at the time was so enamored of being on Broomfield's camera that he apparently saw no reason not to smoke a joint while driving to see his client.
Broomfield went on to poke his head into the worlds of Heidi Fleiss, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, and Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. Then Aileen Wuornos came back into his life in the form of a subpoena. Wuornos' execution was scheduled for 2002 and Broomfield's original documentary was being used as evidence in an appeal. The filmmaker used the opportunity to revisit the story, and "Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer" goes a long way towards living up to its title. Broomfield steps back from the legal wrangling to trace the people and places in Wournos’ life. It’s not a good life. Not even for a moment. Just another tragic toppling of the dominoes: abandonment, abuse, drugs, sex, ostracism, poverty, confusion and desperation.
But what are we supposed to do with Aileen Wournos? In her last interviews with Broomfield she tells him she has no intention of saying anything that might prevent her execution. Broomfield had called her the most honest person in the proceedings during her first trial. Now she's saying it was all lies. She never killed the men out of self defense. She wants to die. She's making a Christian confession. Or maybe not. The evening before her execution, her paranoid rant to Broomfield suggests she's far more mentally unstable than the diagnosis of Gov. Jeb Bush's examiners. And though Nick Broomfield is clearly hitting us over the head with the injustice of the death penalty, Aileen Wournos’ execution struck me as perhaps the least tragic thing in her unhappy life.
I suppose I could take Broomfield to task for selling a story on the selling of a serial killer twice, now. And perhaps the timing of his documentary right on the heels of an Academy Award nominated film on the same subject was inevitable. But even if he was yet another opportunist plundering the woman's life, Broomfield probably got the story as right as anyone could get it. Or would want it.
Much is being made about Charlize Theron capturing the mad, haunted look in Aileen Wournos’ eyes. In "Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer" you get to see the real thing. And it’s not pretty.
© 2004 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 1/21/04
Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer
UK/USA - 2003