Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)

1969-12-31 (Limited release)

“Aileen,” calls out Nick Broomfield near the end of Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, “I’m sorry.” At that moment, she’s being led away by two prison guards, following her final interview with the filmmaker. Apparently furious that the questions have veered toward the murders for which she’s on Florida’s death row, Wuornos has cut off the meeting, exercising the only control she has over her experience at that moment. She turns back to the camera one last time and raises her middle finger.

Soon after, Broomfield and others who have been called to testify at Wuornos’ last appeal hearing grimly await her execution, knowing that she has stopped the appeals process (she was executed on 9 October 2003). He is sorry, for everything she’s gone through and for everything she’s done. For Broomfield, she has demonstrated obvious insanity during their conversations, his film footage bearing out his observation that “It was really pretty incredible that Aileen had sailed through the psychiatric interview the day before.” And then Broomfield gets a call from Wuornos’ best friend, Dawn Botkins, who assures him, “She’s sorry, Nick. She didn’t give you the finger. She gave the media the finger, and then the attorneys the finger. And she knew if she said much more, it could make a difference on her execution tomorrow, so she just decided not to.”

By the end of her life, Wuornos wanted to die, seeing it as her only escape from the legal, penal, and media systems so intent on exploiting her. Broomfield, for his part, concurs with her assessment of these accessories to her death sentence; he revealed greedy abuses by her former lawyer (Dr. Legal, also known as Steve), her adoptive mother Arlene, as well as the “movie talks” conducted by several cops and Aileen’s ex, Tyria Moore, in his 1992 documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Moved by her extraordinary story (and called to testify in 2002), Broomfield decided to make an unprecedented second documentary about the same subject, this time focused on Wuornos’ background and her execution.

The maker of Monster in a Box (a 1992 film of the Spaulding Gray performance), as well as the documentaries Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1995), Kurt & Courtney (1998), and Biggie and Tupac (2002), Broomfield has something of a reputation as an offbeat, relentless, and unashamedly subjective investigative filmmaker. On all three counts, his work is smart and provocative, challenging the traditional notions of “objectivity” and singular “truth.”

The brilliant new film also poses difficult, often unanswerable questions, and in particular, given the recent release of Patty Jenkins’ Monster, starring the much-praised Charlize Theron as a version of Wuornos, it raises other ways of looking at this sensational, tragic, and still troubling saga — as much about the culture that produces and fears, consumes and condemns, an Aileen Wuornos as it is about Aileen Wuornos.

Wuornos sees her relationship with her adversaries — and these are numerous — in seemingly simple terms. During that final interview with Broomfield, the camera closes on her face, strained, harsh, and eyes bulging. She describes her sense of the state’s ongoing surveillance (“They were using sonic pressure on my head since 1997”), and pops off when Broomfield says he’s been to visit her mother Diana, whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years (“I don’t give a damn about that whore, she can go to hell”). With that, she lays out her terms: “My only interview concerns are about cops letting me kill.”

This is how she sees her life and upcoming death, a function of the incessant abuse she suffered throughout. Mistreated by her relatives, a prostitute as a child, raped repeatedly, and living outside in the snow for two years in her teens, Wuornos surely has good reason to be angry and devastated (which is not the same as saying she has license to murder, obviously). By the time she’s deciding to cut off the interview, she’s also launched into a much broader assault on all her enemies: “You sabotaged my ass, society. You’re an inhumane bunch of living bastards and bitches… In 2019, Iraq’s supposed to hit you anyway. You’re all gonna get nuked.”

It’s a stunning moment, leading directly to her exit, when she flips off the camera. Nothing can quite prepare you for this outburst, and especially, for Wuornos’ face, caved in and aggressive at the same time. Still, Broomfield’s film, until this point, outlines the processes that brought her to murder and insanity. Opening with a black and white photo of smiling little girl Aileen, the film cuts to a driving shot (these are frequent in Broomfield’s documentaries, means to get from one place to another, and here, as well, from one time to another). Under a spooky piano soundtrack, Broomfield states, “It was here in these woods off Florida’s 1-75 that police found the bodies of seven men.”

From sweet-faced, hopeful child to brutal serial killer: she typically shot her victims, stole their money and cars, and claimed self-defense at trial, reporting that she was raped and threatened repeatedly. How did Wuornos make this terrifying journey? Winner of “Best Documentary” at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Aileen fills in some background not noted in other films about her, including the fictionalized Monster and Broomfield’s 1992 documentary, which, as its title indicates, focuses on the “selling” of the killer. At the same time, it never forgets that information, knowledge, and understanding cannot be complete, that compassion and justice might be related concepts.

Looking for clues to Aileen’s tragedy, Broomfield and longtime collaborator Joan Churchill look through Aileen’s delicate ink drawings and family pictures provided by Dawn (Aileen aged four, a sister’s graduation, her father’s mug shot [convicted of child molestation, he hanged himself in prison], and the “local pedophile” who probably fathered her child); take a trip to her hometown of Troy, Michigan; and record courtroom testimony by witness who knew Wuornos as a child (one man remembers that even while he was using her for sex, he publicly scorned her: “I’d throw rocks at her and tell her to get outta there and get the fuck home,” where, apparently, her brother was also having sex with her). By this point in her lengthy legal proceedings (it’s 2001; she was arrested in 1991), Wuornos is plainly worn out, refuting the witnesses to her hardships by saying she never knew them. Suggesting that they need to take polygraph tests, she observes, “There’s a lot of illegalness going on.”

All this to the manifest dismay of her attorney, Joe Hobson, currently (in 2001) trying to make the case that her earlier convictions resulted from dismal lawyering by Dr. Legal (who greets Broomfield in this film by shaking his hand and saying, “Fuck you and your documentary”; Broomfield helpfully adds that Steve believes he was “run out of town” because of the film, and insists that he never blamed him for losing Wuornos’ case, because he was in “over his head”). Broomfield’s own testimony has to do with his 1992, used as evidence of Steve’s ineptitude (he brags about smoking dope en route to the courtroom, he asks for $25,000 in exchange for an interview with Wuornos).

Broomfield, meantime, speaks on several occasions with Aileen, and these death row interviews form the new movie’s engrossing center. Complaining of the treatment she receives in prison (“You have your problems where some staff don’t like you,” she says, adopting their leering attitude: “‘Oh, you’re a serial killer!'”). When he wonders whether she would have been different had her personal history been different, she agrees. She would have been an archeologist or a missionary, or maybe not a missionary, since she’s not sure about proselytizing. In any event, she smiles, too broadly, and asserts, “I would have done it real decent.”

But when Broomfield suggests that she accept efforts to reconsider the case, that she might imagine causes for her behavior rather than focus on the punishment, she backs off. “Nick, I’ll say it again. You have to kill Aileen Wuornos because she’ll kill again.” Whether or not she has absorbed this thinking from the years of judgment (from childhood until now), the point is surely made — again and again — by the media coverage of the execution. Local reports announce her “Date with Death,” and reporters crowd around Broomfield to ask after his last conversation with Wuornos (this is ironic, certainly, as the filmmaker is now not only part of the media, but also their object, however briefly). His response, captured by Churchill’s camera, is terse but heartfelt: “Here was somebody who has obviously lost her mind. We’re executing a person who’s mad. I don’t know what kind of message that gives. I find it very disturbing.”

Even as Aileen thus offers an explicit politics, in part this an anti-death penalty argument and in part its indictment of the “justice system” more generally, it also takes a different shape from Broomfield’s previous films. Rather than pushing forward (and sideways and roundabout) toward the final get, the interview that provides climax if not resolution, it leaves the glaring lack of an interview to speak loudly. This is not to say that the documentary justifies Wuornos or even makes her very sympathetic. It does, however, suggest that her death is part of an ongoing process. Dawn walks over the lawn where she has scattered Aileen’s ashes, under Natalie Merchant’s “Carnival,” the song Wuornos requested. Her absence — in her own “life and death” — is surely haunting.