Aileen: the Life and Death of a Serial Killer

Robin Clifford 
Aileen: the Life and Death of a Serial Killer
Laura Clifford 
'I've walked these streets in a carnival of sights to see all the cheap thrill seekers the vendors and the dealers they crowded around me have I been blind have I been lost inside my self and my own mind hypnotized mesmerized by what my eyes have seen? '                                                      Natalie Merchant, 'Carnival'

In 1992, documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield chronicled the crimes, arrest and conviction of the first claimed female serial killer since the term came to use in “Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer.” A decade later, the documaker became an unwilling participant in her death when he was subpoenaed as a witness in her final courtroom hearing and ordered to attend her execution in “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer.”

Broomfield’s first doc about Wuornos was an examination of the efforts by her lawyer, her born-again adoptive mother and members of the Florida State Police to sell the female serial killer’s story to Hollywood’s highest bidder. Aileen was convicted in 1992 for the murders of six men along a lonely stretch of highway in southern Florida. Rather than capitalize on the sensationalism of America’s first, he told about her life of abandonment and abuse, incest and promiscuous sex, hitchhiking prostitution and, finally, about the seven killings. Broomfield also showed the greed of those around the mentally disturbed Aileen as she is convicted and sentenced to Florida’s notorious Death Row. Wuornos came across as the most sympathetic of the cast of characters that was driven by pursuit of the almighty dollar.

In “Aileen” Broomfield turns his camera introspectively when he is pulled back into Wuornos’s life once again. He had remained in contact with the convicted killer since the 1992 film and that documentary was selected as evidence in Wuornos final appeal. The director’s role as witness would last 18 months more when, on 9 October 2002, Aileen Wuornos met her maker after lethal injection. “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer” is Broomfield’s opus to the victim of a system that may well have contributed to her creation.

Nick Broomfield and co-director Joan Churchill take a hard look at the capital punishment issue in America through the story of Aileen. After over a decade on Death Row, Wuornos, who steadfastly claimed self-defense from rape by her seven victims, reversed her original testimony in 2001, saying that she committed the murders and wanted to make a clean breast of things with God. Broomfield’s camera, at one point, continued running unbeknownst to Wuornos, and she confessed to the documentarian that she could not continue her Death Row vigil and just wanted it all to be over. In 2002, Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed the execution order to grant her wish, claiming it the just and right thing to do.

Broomfield and Churchill, using the 10+ past years of Wuornos’s life as the backdrop, create an essay that damns the pro death penalty argument made by its proponents – most prominently, Governor Bush who wants Florida to be more “like Texas” when it comes to killing conflicts. The docu-makers question this lack of respect for human life and cite the 100 or more cases where a Death Row inmate was released as innocent. Just one wrongful execution of an innocent should be sufficient to eliminate the barbarity, they state. Couple this declaration with the blatant evidence of Aileen’s disturbed mental state – should she have even stood trial? – and “Life and Death of a Serial Killer” is poignant indeed.

Nick Broomfield has always insinuated himself in his documentaries but, in “Aileen,” he is an unwilling participant in her story. There is an obvious level of caring for the troubled woman and he unblinkingly uses his camera to show the pained, confused state of mind of his subject. Pulled into her story first as a witness at her last hearing and then as an observer of her final moments on earth, it is obvious that the effect of these events will stay with the filmmaker for the rest of his life.

The documentary team intersperse excerpts from the 1992 docu to raise doubts over Aileen’s fitness for execution and, as such, the new footage is more cursorily handled. “Aileen” is, if anything a scathing indictment against the death penalty and its proponents, keeping with the concept that all life is precious. It is too bad that those currently in political power in the United States don’t think so too. I give it a B-.

British documentarian Nick Broomfield ("Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam," "Kurt and Courtney") is surprised when he's served with a subpoena to testify at Aileen Wuornos's appeal.  His 1992 film, "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer," exposed Aileen's intimates and the legal system all scrambling to make a buck off her story (several Florida policemen were fired as a result).  Revisiting the woman he had found as the most honest person involved in her case, Broomfield paints a tragic portrait of abuse while questioning the morality of the death sentence in "Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer."

With Charlize Theron just having won the Best Actress Oscar for "Monster," Broomfield's sequel documentary arrives when curiosity about America's first female serial killer may be at an all time high.  While initially it appears that Broomfield may be dipping into the well of his first Wuornos feature to capitalize on that interest, what eventually emerges is his least exploitative, most personal work to date.  "Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer" is a sad story of a woman driven to heinous acts and eventually to madness by years of abuse and a quest for acceptance by whatever strata of society would have her.

Nick drives into Ocala, marvelling in later voice over that within one and a half years, he will be witnessing an execution.  He is reunited with several of the players surrounding Aileen's arrest in 1991 and her trial.  Steve, aka Dr. Legal, had to leave town after "Selling" exposed him as a profiteer, but strangely, he and the filmmaker appear fond of each other, with Broomfield excusing much of his behavior as inexperience.  Still, we (re)learn that Wuornos's counsel never even attempted to get her anything less than the death penalty.

"Life and Death" is tent poled around four extended interviews Broomfield conducts with the oddly cheerful (when she's not ranting) Wuornos while he builds the story of her life through interviews with those who knew her growing up.  Aileen is happy to see Nick.  She repeats her trial testimony, insisting that she had acted in self defense, then goes on to say that the cops knew she was killing and allowed her to continue.  That way, she's been used to clean up rapist scum while becoming a high profile case the police can make book and movie deals on.  Wuornos is so obsessed with this idea, she even insists that she was under helicopter surveillance during her crime spree, a fact which was later covered up.  During a second interview, Aileen says she is going to come clean, as she won't go into the 'chamber' as a liar.  Now she says she killed in cold blood with robbery as her motivation.  Her girlfriend Tyria, who she says she still loves and misses (this is the woman who betrayed her), always wanted to go out and was drinking up their money. The last two interviews clearly demonstrate that Aileen's mental state, which Governor Jeb Bush accepts as sane after a fifteen minute psychiatric evaluation, is confused, psychotic even. She says her father was straight, a decent man, although the record presents a convicted sex abuser.  When she thinks the camera is off, she tells Nick that she really did kill in self defense, but she 'has to go down.'  Her last interview is held the day before her execution in tightly controlled conditions.  Aileen only wishes to expose police corruption and becomes angry when Nick asks her about her crimes.  She says either her cell's mirror or TV is rigged, and that the state is using sonic pressure to crush her brain.  With eyes popping (a trait Theron mimicked well), Wuornos becomes angry and defiant and ends the interview.

Broomfield traces Aileen's history, providing ample evidence for her present state.  She was abandoned by her birth mother and raised by her grandparents.  An old friend, Dawn, describes a horrific beating she witnessed Aileen receiving from her grandfather that left Dawn 'hypnotized.' A man who slept with the young Aileen takes the witness stand and describes how he would taunt her, even throw rocks, so as not to be associated with her in public.  We learn about Chief, a creepy local pedophile rumored to be the father of the baby Aileen bore at age thirteen. After the birth, she became the local untouchable and lived through the winter in the woods at the end of her street.  The harshness of the weather drove her to the warmth of Florida, where she became the hitchhiking prostitute of her adult years.

The media circus that surrounds death row as Aileen's execution nears reflects the freak show that 'nurtured' this tragic woman.  After Aileen's death is announced, the statement made to the press recounts her last words, ramblings about Jesus and space ships.  Broomfield's point could not be clearer.

The filmmaker pays his final respects to the woman he knew for twelve years by playing the song she requested for her wake over the end credits.  The lyrics to Natalie Merchant's 'Carnival' prove that, at least at one point in time, Aileen had some insight into the horror that was her world.


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