Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992)
Directed by: Nick Broomfield
Written by: Nick Broomfield.
Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)
Directed by: Nick Broomfield & Joan Churchill.
Documentarian Nick Broomfield’s two films about serial killer Aileen Wuornos – made a decade apart, the first as she is going through the legal process related to the seven murders she committed (you cannot really call them trials – she only had one, for one murder), and the second as the state of Florida prepares to execute her – are both fascinating films, about the same woman, and yet are also different from each other – or at least have a different perspective. Broomfield, unlike many documentarians, almost always ends up as one of his films major subjects – and the films are as much about how he made them as they are about the subject. This is particularly true of the first film – made in 1992 – as it takes until the final 15 minutes of the 85 minute film before Broomfield even gets to talk to Wuornos herself. Everything up until then is about the people surrounding Wuornos – in particular her lawyer, one of those sketchy guys who advertises on TV (he calls himself Dr. Legal) and Wuornos’ “adopted mother” – a woman of about the same age of Wuornos, who adopts her only after she has been arrested and charged with the murder.
The first 70 minutes of the film details, no so much Wuornos’ crimes (which the films never go into detail of), but of her life, how she was caught, the legal process around her, and how everyone she comes in contact with is trying to make money off of her. The second film, made in the months, weeks, days and even hours – leading up to Wuornos’ execution is much more about the woman herself. Broomfield has more access to her this time, and she’s freer to talk to him. You could criticize both films for being too sympathetic to Wuornos – which may explain why Broomfield doesn’t really detail what she did to her victims, although does allow her testimony on the stand of being raped by one of them to play out for minutes on end – but I think what both films clearly show is various breakdowns in the legal system. It’s not that Wuornos was innocent – she wasn’t, and even Broomfield, more sympathetic than most, doesn’t argue that – but that instead she was represented at her first trials by someone who clearly had no idea what he was doing, and gave her terrible legal advice (she will eventually plea “No Contest” to most of the murders – essentially a guilty plea – and yet her lawyer didn’t even attempt to work out a plea bargain for her). In the second film, Wuornos is quite clearly mentally deranged – paranoid and ranting about “sonic waves” being used to crush her head by prison officials. You cannot even argue that she’s trying to do that to spare her own life – to get her sentence commuted to life – as she does everything possible to speed up her execution, not slow it down.
Through the two films, Broomfield also does an excellent job of showing how Wuornos was abandoned or betrayed by practically everyone in her life. She is arrested because her lover – Tyria Moore – turns her in, and confesses when Moore makes a tearful plea for her to do so, just to ensure Moore herself doesn’t get into trouble for anything (the movie strongly implies, without outright saying, that Moore at the very least knew far more than she lets on – and perhaps was even involved in the crimes). The first film also shows her lawyer and her adopted mother, far more worried about negotiating their appearance fees than with Wuornos herself (Broomfield also niftily avoids criticism that he paid for interviews for the film – something many would frown on – by including it right in the film itself – he’s clearly not trying to hide anything). I have a feeling that although her lawyer – Steven Glazer – and adopted mother – Arelene Pralle - know that Broomfield is filming everything as they greedily negotiate their fee, or crack jokes, etc. – that they never believed he would use the footage. After all, he’s there to make a film about a female serial killer, not this stuff. The pair of them come off as extremely greedy – or as Broomfield calls them “mercenary”. Glazer is in the second film – although he tells Broomfield to fuck off, and apparently blames Broomfield for him being “run out of town” (although oddly, not long after, they’re riding in a car together). Pralle, tellingly, isn’t in the second film – and apparently was no longer in Wuornos’ life by then.
By the time Wuornos herself shows up in the first film – apart from all the news footage – the film is almost over. While she rants about the media and the police – she also comes across as at the very least honest, and knows what her lawyer and adopted mother are doing to her – like everyone else, they’re out to make money off of her.
If the first film is mainly about the media firestorm, and how everyone around her tried to make money off of her, the second film is much more focused on Wuornos herself. No longer having to go through lawyers and family members, Broomfield has easier access to Wuornos herself. Whether it’s the years on death row that has done it to her, or she was always this way, she is clearly unhinged at times when speaking to Broomfield – her moods ranging wildly from one extreme to the next. She changes her story about being raped by her victims and how it was all self-defense – but then seems to contradict that when she thinks the camera isn’t on her. All she wants to do is talk about the cops and how, in her version, they let her do everything to turn her into a serial killer to make money. It’s in this film that Broomfield also digs deeper into Wuornos’ life as a child – her abusive childhood, living in the woods, the mother who abandoned her (he even interviews her). Wuornos herself believes that had she had a better childhood, she would have turned out differently – yet again, at other points she contradicts this.
Taken as a pair, the films represent a fascinating, yet still incomplete portrait of Wuornos - strangely, drugs and
Note: I saw these two films around the same time that Patty Jenkins’ Monster – starring Charlize Theron in an Oscar winning role as Wuornos came out. I advise you to do the same, as it will certainly solidify that while I think Monster has some issues – Theron’s performance isn’t among them. It is a brilliant performance that captures Wuornos, and not just because of some skilled makeup work.