Dying for Attention 

A new Aileen Wuornos doc makes Monster irrelevant

A new Aileen Wuornos doc makes Monster irrelevant

When Charlize Theron won an Oscar this year for playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the docudrama Monster, nobody expected or wanted her to thank Wuornos for killing all those people and making her triumph possible. But it would have been nice to hear a word or two about why she thought the role was important, or what she was trying to accomplish—mostly because the movie itself is short on answers, let alone a compelling reason to exist. Now, with a first-rate documentary about Wuornos in theaters, there’s no need whatsoever for a salacious, commercially sweetened facsimile.

Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer grew out of a previous documentary by Nick Broomfield, a British filmmaker whose specialty is the lunatic fringe that surrounds every scandal du jour. For 1992’s Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Broomfield traveled to Florida, where the former prostitute was undergoing trial for the murders of seven men in a string of interstate robberies. He spent less time with his ostensible subject than with her handlers—most memorably her clueless attorney, a frizzy-haired, guitar-strumming camera hog known as “Dr. Legal.” But he saw enough to prefer Wuornos, however disturbed, to the leeches peddling her story.

Almost a decade later, Broomfield finds himself testifying in a Florida courtroom at Wuornos’ appeals hearing. His film has become key to the defense, which argues that the earlier trials were tainted by police misconduct and incompetent representation. (Exhibit A is footage of Dr. Legal self-medicating with a joint while driving to a jailhouse meeting.) Aileen begins with Broomfield’s testimony, then shifts its focus to Wuornos herself, who claims that the police let her keep killing to create a longer, better story—the story of “America’s first female serial killer.”

That “better story” makes up almost all of Monster, which raises the sickening suspicion that if Wuornos hadn’t taken several men’s lives, her own wouldn’t be worth filming. Aileen finds the subsequent years, and their toll on Wuornos’ already warped psyche, to be a far richer subject. Incorporating her sordid family history without excusing her crimes, Broomfield and co-director Joan Churchill show how years of waiting to die turned Wuornos slowly into a caged animal. Demonized by tabloid TV, reduced to a political game piece in Gov. Jeb Bush’s reelection plans, betrayed almost without exception by everyone she had ever known, she wanted out of her doomed life by the time Broomfield interviewed her again.

What makes Aileen so chilling, and so thought-provoking, is that Wuornos defies being classified as either a victim or a villain. She comes across as an insoluble mixture, the kind of predator that takes a lifetime of mistreatment to create. Volatile, cunning and scary in ways Theron doesn’t begin to suggest, she tried to sabotage her self-defense claims with convincing cynicism. To the many who wanted her dead, she could seem conveniently lucid. To Broomfield, who caught her in terrifying psychotic tirades, she was plainly disturbed. In the end, she just needed to look sane enough for the state of Florida to kill her—which it did, in 2002.

Broomfield typically inserts himself into his documentaries as a crusader, a Columbo who uses his shabby Brit outsiderdom as a gimmick. He’s more abashed and self-effacing in Aileen, where his humility has an edge of remorse. He too lined up for his piece of Aileen Wuornos. But his docs add up to more than exploitation: They’re a consideration of capital punishment, the irreducible humanity of even the hated, the insatiable media hunger for demons, and the ecosystem of parasites that arises out of such muck. Maybe Nick Broomfield’s interest in Wuornos began, like Hollywood’s, when she killed seven people. The difference is, that’s not where it ended.

—Jim Ridley

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