..

AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Directors:  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

Film ***

Nick 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.

In 1992, he first examined the story of a murderer on death row in Aileen Wuornos: 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 story.

Now, 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Florida 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.

There 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?

Looking 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. 

During 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.

The 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?

Toward 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. 

If 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. 

Another 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.

If 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.

Video **

The 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.

Audio **

The 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.

Features *

The only extra is the trailer for Monster.

Summary:

I continue to applaud Nick Broomfield as the embodiment of the spirit of the modern documentary filmmaker.  His straightforward, modest approach lets the material take center stage, and his calm, likeable demeanor mixed with unquestionable courage makes films like Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer worth experiencing despite a minor flaw or two.