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Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer

Documentarian Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam) follows up his trenchant and disturbing 1992 documentary Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer with this less-focused, but still fascinating, revisiting of "America's first female serial killer." Co-directed by Joan Churchill, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer catches up with Wuornos on Florida's Death Row, just prior to her October 2002 execution for murdering seven men who had employed her as a prostitute. In 1992, Broomfield uncovered a seamy layer of profiteers surrounding Wuornos, in the form of an incompetent lawyer, a woman who "adopted" Wuornos, and opportunistic police angling to make a buck off their involvement in the notorious case. Broomfield re-engages in Wuornos' case when called to testify at a 2002 hearing appealing her death sentence, for which his previous film has been entered as evidence. Broomfield finds a different woman than the one he interviewed a decade earlier: Although her sparklingly vile and inarticulate manner is as repugnant as ever, Wuornos, paranoid and clearly out of touch with reality, is obsessed with the idea that police allowed — and possibly even controlled — her killing spree so they could profit on selling the story. She also contends that her brain is being assaulted by "sonic pressure" from prison satellites, and she expects her afterlife to involve spaceships. More relevantly, Wuornos is also intent on an speedy execution and, in the documentary's most shocking scene, dispassionately confesses to Broomfield that there was never an element of self-defense in any of her crimes. Later comments, however, cast doubt on this turnaround and suggest that Wuornos' paranoia led her to change her story lest her lethal injection be delayed. Broomfield's trademark is his unassuming persuasiveness and unforced empathy, which commonly elicits unexpected admissions from his subjects. Sadly, Wuornos is no longer capable of coherent comment, so his talents are lost on her. His point in this documentary seems to be simply that Wuornos is clearly insane and therefore unfit for execution (he also suggests that he sees little value in the death penalty, anyway), but that concept alone hardly sustains the movie. Fascinating, instead, is the number of questions left wide open by this examination: Wuornos directly contradicts all conventional wisdom about her childhood and crime spree, and although she rarely is convincing, that simply creates confusion rather than clarity. What is clear is that she is nearly driven mad by the need to see herself as a victim, and Broomfield, who normally has an ace bullshit detector, disappointingly concurs with Wuornos' impotent self-assessment. Her paranoia notwithstanding, Wuornos would likely adore Charlize Theron's Oscar-winning representation in Monster (2003), which omits many of her less-pitiable traits in evidence here, such as her irrational rage (after the verdict in one trial, she turns to the jury and expresses the wish that they and their children be raped and murdered). Perhaps the key lesson of Wuornos' squalid life is not just that child abuse can be indelibly damaging, but that nothing is more corrosive to adults than an addiction to victimization. Interestingly, in what is sort of a sad thematic sequel to his earlier documentary, all of Broomfield's secondary sources — from Aileen's "best friend" to her lawyer and mother — no longer appear to be trying to profit monetarily from the case, but still seem driven by a need to exploit their connections to Wuornos, if only for the attention. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer presents the title in a good full-frame transfer (1.33:1) with a Dolby 2.0 Surround audio mix (from a digital video source). Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr



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