Aileen: Life & Death of a Serial Killer
Columbia/Tri-Star // R // $19.95 // June 1, 2004
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted July 5, 2004
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NOTE: Read Cinema Gotham's interview with director Nick Broomfield.

Nick Broomfield's combative investigative style has produced several memorable documentaries, including Hollywood Madam: The Heidi Fleiss Story, Kurt & Courtney and Biggie & Tupac. But the subject that seems to haunt Broomfield the most is Aileen Wournos, the convicted female serial killer whose media circus trial Broomfield documented in 1992. When her final appeal went to court a decade later, Broomfield was called to testify. Not one to miss an opportunity, Broomfield brought along his camera and, along with co-director and cinematographer Joan Churchill, made Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer.

Wournos should be familiar to audiences even if they never saw Broomfield's earlier film (Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer) or the sleazy TV movie from that same year: She was the subject of 2003's Monster, the film that featured Charlize Theron under a ton of make-up and for which she won the best actress Oscar.

For those who saw Theron, all dolled up accepting her award, Aileen might come as a shock. There is no filter between what's real and what's art. Broomfield's camera, as always, presents a blunt, honest portrait with no romanticizing or false drama. What makes this film unique, however, is that it's Broomfield's opportunity to revisit a subject, to update his portrait and gain new insight.

It's clear early on that a decade on death row has taken its toll on Wournos. She still maintains that her crimes were committed in self-defense and, as her appeals wear down, she starts to panic. Broomfield is clearly questioning the death penalty here, but doesn't do anything outlandishly opinionated. Instead he allows the various participants to speak for themselves, including Jeb Bush displaying his typical glee at offing a prisoner so close to a re-election campaign (Broomfield quotes a Bush aide as saying that Florida wants to catch up to Texas in terms of moving inmates through the process and frying them as quickly and often as possible). Similarly, Broomfield lets Wournos' original lawyer, a hairy shyster who advertises on TV as "Dr. Legal," display his incompetence both with new footage of the man's appeals testimony and with footage from the 1992 film showing Dr. Legal trying to make money off the notoriety of the case and smoking weed on the way to court. Broomfield is not unbiased but the level of people he's dealing with here (and in most of his films) guarantees that the seamy underbelly is never too far below the surface.

What really throws Broomfield, and the audience, for a loop is what makes this film so gripping: At a certain point Wournos suddenly changes her story and claims that none of the seven killings were in self-defense and that they were actually cold-blooded murders. She waves the rest of the appeal and basically requests a date. Governor Bush is only too happy to oblige and a date is set for her execution.

Broomfield visits Wournos a few days before the execution and she sticks to her new story. But he secretly records her voice when she thinks the camera is off and in this quiet, whispered conversation she admits that the killings really were self-defense and she only flipped in order to end her ordeal. Her concerns range from the dread of spending more time on death row to fear of additional abuse at the hands of prison guards to crazy-sounding conspiracy theories that the police allowed her to continue killing after they had identified her just to trump up the charges.

Now, the death penalty is a touchy issue with opinions falling on all sides. But there is no way that anyone but the staunchest death advocate can watch these bizarre proceedings and not feel that somewhere, somehow this system has gone horribly wrong. Whether or not the killings were self-defense is irrelevant (and impossible to know.) What's nuts here is that Wournos clearly felt they were but lied in order to bring on her own death seemingly to escape the system. That just can't be right. Her desperate pleas to Broomfield to investigate the police corruption (which are not baseless, as the original cops investigating her case were forced to resign after it came out that they were making money off selling her story to film producers) may not ever lead to anything potent but Wournos' subverting the justice system in a suicidal attempt to speed up her own death clearly goes against the notion of justice. Besides, she clearly seems mentally unstable, regardless of what Governor Bush's fifteen minute psychiatric evaluation may have determined.

Details of Wournos' childhood are just as horrifying. Abandonment, homelessness, teenage pregancy, mental and psychical abuse: This is one woman who really never did seem to get a break. And when Broomfield visits her biological mother, days before the execution, the woman looks shocked at the notion that Aileen was homeless for a while. What cave has this woman been living in? When Aileen hears that Broomfield visited this woman she unleashes a torrent of expletives that let's you know that there are some wounds time doesn't heal.

The sad thing about this particular film is that it has a real palpable sense of inevitability. Broomfield's films are often surprisingly optimistic for all their suspicion and cynicism: He seems to believe in the cleansing power of the truth. In some of his other films, like Biggie & Tupac, if someone poses a theory that police might have conspired to some injustice, Broomfield would spring to his feet and hunt down as much information as possible. Here, when Wournos details her charges of police corruption, Broomfield simply allows her to speak her piece and passively listens. It's like he wants her to get to have her say but he knows that there's no investigation to be followed at this point. I'm not sure if it's because he doesn't believe her or if he simply knows there's no point. He alludes to the idea that she's gone mad but he also is well aware that there's no stopping the execution.

The video is full-frame. (The packaging confusingly calls it 1.85:1, but it's TV ratio.) Most of the new footage was shot on video and looks reasonably fine, if uncinematic and a bit dull. There isn't much in the way of subtlety to the footage. It's focused and colorful but unremarkable.

The Dolby Surround audio is also fine. The film adds permanent subtitles to some hard-to-understand interviews but only includes a full optional subtitle track in French.

Only a trailer for Monster, which the disc autoplays at first. It would have been nice to have another opinionated, detailed Broomfield commentary track, but there is none.

Broomfield has his detractors who say he's a gadfly and a muckraker. I find his films to be fascinating for the unusual angles he's willing to consider and for the way he's willing to put himself at risk to look for justice. But even within his own career, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer is different. It's less investigative and more of a eulogy made in advance. Broomfield obviously saw the wounded child behind his subject's fearsome crimes and wanted to give her one last shot at being humanized in the public eye. What he fashioned from these interviews is a stunning and moving film about a woman whose life had no easily defined story and no fully finished ending.

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