Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer Movie Review

Nick Broomfield's new documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer is a wispy and tenuous affair; arbitrary and uncomfortably personal at the same time. Broomfield, the stumbly yet sly provocateur who took some loose conspiracy theories and a no-guts-no-glory attitude and made the documentaries Biggie and Tupac and Kurt & Courtney, aims smaller this time, going for something a little closer to home.

Back in 1992, Broomfield filmed Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Wuornos had been convicted and sentenced to death in early 1991 for murdering seven men in Florida. She shot to fame pretty fast for being the first female serial killer of note in the nation's history. The fact that she was a lesbian prostitute who'd been on her own since the age of 13 and claimed to have only killed johns who were trying to rape or kill her only added to the tabloid allure. In the 1992 film, Broomfield documented the attempts of several police officers and Wuornos's mother to make her into a Hollywood development deal, making him oddly empathize with this woman who, although a serial killer, who had been systematically abused and betrayed by pretty much everybody in her life.

The new documentary starts in 2001, when Broomfield is called to testify at Wuornos's last appeal before her execution, at which point the filmmaker and serial killer (not a "thrill killer," though, as Wuornos herself testily points out later) reconnect. Aileen is more focussed on Wuornos's background and what she says now about her crimes, instead of examining the familial and legal structures surrounding her. This takes Broomfield to Wuornos's hometown of Troy, Michigan, where he teases out the unbelievably gothic tale of her childhood: an abuse victim, she was trading oral sex for candy at age nine and not long after was living in the woods just down the road from her family's house.

The bulk of Aileen, however, is composed of Broomfield's long, rambly prison interviews with Wuornos herself. As usual, the filmmaker's success comes not in his questions, as he's a mediocre interviewer at best, but the ineffable something in his demeanor that utterly disarms everyone, even a psychopath like Wuornos. She opens right up and drops a bomb: She actually didn't act in self-defense when she killed (a premise that Monster, the recent fictional treatment of Wuornos, takes a little too seriously). Rather, it was in cold blood and strictly for the money.

Though Wuornos backs off this statement later, preferring instead to detour into lunatic rants about how the cops had supposedly been shadowing her during the killings and let her continue anyway, it obviously stuns Broomfield, who allows himself a lot of empathy for her and might believe that he was suckered in the first film. Wuornos spews on and on during the later part of the film, becoming more heated as her execution date draws closer, begging for death and making odd threats against the Supreme Court. Broomfield, though, keeps coming back to whether or not she killed in self-defense, almost begging Wuornos to tell him that she did.

Broomfield seems to be unable to stop himself from exhibiting a certain tut-tut attitude toward the state, as he can't help but be appalled at the execution mechanism being put into place. A brief attempt is made to score a point against governor Jeb Bush, who may have used the 2002 Wuornos execution to help him out in an election, but nothing much is made of it. There's little here to hold up to serious scrutiny, Broomfield is mostly just shooting from the hip and missing as much as he scores, but there something undeniably gripping about his relationship with Wuornos. Ravenous monster, damaged victim, or both, she keeps jumping just out of the camera's reach, all the way to her death.

Come on, Aileen.

Cast & Crew

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Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer Rating

" OK "

Rating: NR, 2003

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