Aileen: The Life And Death Of A Serial Killer

Aileen: The Life And Death Of A Serial Killer


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

This is the second time that documentary maker Nick Broomfield has made a film about Aileen Wuornos. There is something deeply manipulative and exploitative about the way he approaches his subjects. If there is mileage in them, he'll strap on his camera, grab a big furry mic and walk right in there.

His movies are as much about him as they are about the person he is trying, and often failing, to interview. He has built a reputation on this, which, to give him his due, is an innovative technique, not dissimilar to Tommy Cooper and conjuring.

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Aileen became famous as the first female serial killer. She was working the Florida highways, if that is the right word for a hitch-hiking hooker with no fixed abode and a lesbian lover, when she started shooting her clients. At first, she pleaded self-defence - they attacked her - but after more than 12 years on Death Row and what felt like a lifetime of psychological trauma, admitted: "It was not thrill kill; I was into the robbery biz."

This is a much better film than Broomfield's Aileen Wuornos: The Selling Of A Serial Killer, made in 1992. It might have something to do with cinematograper and co-director Joan Churchill and not simply because this is the final chapter.

Aileen wants to die and she does, but you don't get to watch. Broomfield believes that she was driven out of her mind by the treatment she received. "We're executing someone who is mad," he complains, in that apologetic English public school voice that wouldn't bruise a butterfly.

Her history is horrendous - abandoned by her mother at birth, physically abused by her grandfather, pregnant at 13, some say by the local paedophile, thrown out of her home, living for two years in the woods at the bottom of the lane, sleeping around, drifting into prostitution because there was nothing else.

Broomfield returns after 12 years because he is called as a witness in her final appeal, and the scenes at the court and in the prison are not like those you might expect to find in a movie. The quality of advocacy is appalling and the atmosphere seedy and second rate. The absence of humanity and complete lack of humour, with the exception of the prisoner and the man they call Dr Legal, her original attorney, who, in Broomfield's words, is "an old hippy, way out of his depth," makes a powerful impression.

At times, Aileen appears to be the most intelligent, honest person in the whole sad saga. There is pain in her eyes so deep you can't fathom it and the anger that erupts suddenly like a tidal rush is not being controlled by anti-depressants. It seems easy to dismiss the accusations against her captors as paranoid delusion and yet, as Broomfield says, "She was betrayed by those closest to her all her life."

What is scary about his film is its insight into the workings of American justice. Jeb Bush, Governor of Florida, appears briefly and his attitude towards the death penalty makes your skin creep. Sympathy for Aileen is hard because she won't have any of it and yet makes you understand why she demands to die, because living, as she does, in that place, is beyond endurance. They even skimped on the traditional final meal. Hers was limited to a $20 budget.

Reviewed on: 20 Nov 2003
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Aileen: The Life And Death Of A Serial Killer packshot
Hard-hitting documentary about the serial killer.
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Director: Nick Broomfield, Joan Churchill

Starring: Aileen Wuornos, Nick Broomfield

Year: 2003

Runtime: 93 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK/US


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