AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER
Review by Michael Jacobson
Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill
Audio: Dolby Surround
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: Monster trailer
Length: 89 Minutes
Release Date: June 1, 2004
Broomfield is an affable filmmaker who's made a career out of bringing us up
close and personal with some of culture's most frightening figures.
In Kurt & Courtney, we saw him train for a possible brawl of a
confrontation with Courtney Love that ended up never coming about, but ended up
as a legal battle with Love to make his film while she tried to cut the legs out
from under it. In Biggie & Tupac, he brought his camera right
into prison and face to face with the notorious "Suge" Knight, who may or
may not have ordered the murders of the two rap superstars. His cameraman was so frightened he frequently pointed away.
1992, he first examined the story of a murderer on death row in Aileen
The Selling of a Serial Killer. Wuornos
had been convicted and sentenced to death for killing seven Florida men over the
course of a year. At the time,
Broomfield noted that the media was having an orgasm of sensationalism with the
case, calling her "the first female serial killer", while noting that those
that should either be helping her (like her lawyer) or at least impartial (like
the investigating cops) were maneuvering themselves to make a profit off of her
after a decade, Broomfield returned to the scene with co-director Joan
Churchill. Aileen's time was
coming to an end. Broomfield and
his first movie were subpoenaed in one last ditch effort to stay her execution.
Aileen wanted to go on record with Nick to say a few things about her
case, which she did in a series of interviews...then finally, on her last day,
she chose him to conduct her final interview.
The result has become Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer.
first thing I noticed when watching this film was just how uncanny Charlize
Theron's performance was in Monster. Watching
the real Aileen on screen further cemented the actress's achievement:
I truthfully have never seen a more perfect embodiment of another human
being performed by any other actor anywhere.
second was Broomfield's awkward attempts to politicize the story, which
frequently distracts the audience from the natural drama at hand.
He correctly condemned those who would profit by her story in his first
picture, but ironically, he seems to do so a little bit himself with his
second...not so much financially as to get an agenda pushed.
governor Jeb Bush is a frequent target...after exhausting her appeals, Aileen
began to publicly state that she wished for her execution to go ahead and take
place. In fact, at one point, she
even threatened "bloodshed" if Governor Bush didn't go ahead and sign her
warrant and set her date. Bush
acknowledged that she made such a wish, and he did sign the warrant...but even
after all that, Broomfield lobs an accusation that it was a purely political
maneuver by Bush in an election year.
is a more troubling aspect to the story when Aileen's lawyer and some of those
close to her worry that she's not mentally sound. Bush responds to their wishes by having three psychiatrists
examine her. Apparently the testing
only took about 15 minutes, and Aileen was pronounced fit enough for execution.
But was she really?
at her on the screen, we can see a decidedly paranoid woman, as she angrily
spins yarns about how she believed that radio waves were being used to affect
her mind while in prison, and how she thought that the cops knew about her and
what she had done after her first murder, but let her go on killing so that they
could call her a "serial killer" and have a bigger story to sell.
She changes her own story several times over the course of this film:
after pleading a detailed case of self-defense initially, she tells Nick
that she made it all up, confessing because she wants to get right with God
before her death. But as her
execution date nears, she reverses again.
her final interview, her eyes seem clouded, and she rails on and on about
meeting her maker in a giant mother ship like what she'd seen in Independence
Day. When Broomfield ponders
that Wuornos may not be mentally fit enough for execution in spite of what the
doctors had quickly diagnosed, it's hard to argue with him.
film works best when focusing on Aileen as she nears the end of her life.
When Broomfield takes his camera out and about to try and find others to
talk about her, it's less focused and interesting.
Sometimes documentarians gamble, and sometimes the risk doesn't pay
off. He finds Aileen's birth mother, for example, which could
have been a more intriguing angle, but being that the old lady had given up her
daughter at only six months old, what did he really expect to hear from her?
the end, neither leading into or out of anything, Broomfield muses, "There is
no proof that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to crime."
It's an observation that doesn't fit into the film he's making,
because nobody in the picture makes the claim that deterrence is the reason
Aileen must die. Being the debater
of issues that I am, I found myself thinking about why that claim is never made
for, say, robbers (i.e., we put robbers in jail, but people still commit
robbery, therefore, jail is not a deterrent to theft, so we should stop
incarcerating thieves), and that took me out of the element for at least a few
moments as the film was nearing its critical point.
you look at the film as social commentary on capital punishment, it doesn't
work. But if you step back and just
examine it as a fascinating up close look at the real life experience of someone
whose time is running out, it's much more successful.
One of the traits of Bloomfield's work that I admire is his ability to
take us into places and scenarios that are not necessarily uncommon, but the
kind that we don't experience much personally, if at all.
positive trait is his humility; in most of his films, there are moments where he
doesn't look on top of his game because of the chaos around him.
Here, he seems dumbfounded by Aileen's final, crazed and angry words
toward him as he tries to conduct the final interview.
It lends an extra element of humanity that some documentaries lack.
Bloomfield misstepped with this work, it's only in his final assessment of
what he created...every documentarian must look at what he's captured and
decide how to present it and what it represents.
I think his attempt to put a political spin on it was an error; he had
enough great material for an intriguing film without adding commentary.
Others may or may not see it as a misjudgment, but in any case, there is
enough going on here to make this a picture worth seeing and discussing.
back of the box contradicts itself by saying "full frame 1.85:1"...it's
the former and not the latter, but being that this picture was shot on video and
not film, the framing isn't an issue. As
will most video productions, the quality isn't quite as good as film, and as
with most on-the-fly documentaries, not much planning could be done in the way
of cinematography or artistic effect. Images
are generally clean and clear, with a slight bit of unavoidable video graininess
from time to time. Perfectly
adequate; neither more nor less.
sound was likewise mostly recorded on the fly with readily movable
equipment...for the most part, there are no real problems other than what you
might expect from the source limitations. In
one or two places, the dialogue didn't come through cleanly, but subtitles
appear on the screen so that no information is missed.
only extra is the trailer for Monster.