The Life & Death of a Serial Killer
Directed by Nick Broomfield & Joan Churchill
Nick Broomfield’s documentary about the life and times (and final days) of killer Aileen Wuornos proves one thing — Charlize Theron’s performance earns every ounce of praise it has received. When Broomfield returns for a final jailhouse interview (the day before Aileen’s scheduled execution in October of 2002), the camera closes in on a woman completely unhinged by isolation and madness. And as we watch the gestures and facial ticks (especially the eyes), we are even more astounded at how well Theron channeled Aileen’s essential character. This is no impression, we conclude, but a fully realized understanding of the flesh and blood human being. That aside, however, this documentary is powerful on its own terms, and for one of the few times I can remember accepting that the person before me is completely insane. Yes, she is responsible and should be punished, but what good does it do to execute a woman so obviously beyond the grasp of reality? And it’s not just her paranoid ravings about police conspiracies, surveillance, or the belief that at death, she will be beamed up like Captain Kirk in Star Trek. This is a woman who robbed and killed to fund an increasingly desperate lifestyle, but also one who saw murder as a legitimate option if life didn’t go according to plan. She feels no remorse because she is only doing what she had to do to survive. Even the idea of regret would not occur to this woman, and it is that lack of conscience that makes her a lunatic. Many sane people kill, but if they genuinely believe that their actions can be justified and do not warrant apology, then they must be labeled insane in order for that term to have any meaning. Consequently, Aileen is nuts, but no more and no less than any number of Pentagon officials who possess laminated books of ready-made excuses to justify bloodlust and brutality. Aileen’s dead-eyed look is the twin sister of a Marine’s thousand-yard stare. Both have been stripped of empathy or understanding.
Broomfield, who directed a previous documentary about Aileen (as well as riveting accounts of Biggie & Tupac and Kurt Cobain’s suicide), has been accused of inserting himself into the story far too much, and such a point is not entirely unfair. After all, Broomfield is called as a witness for Aileen’s clemency hearing and proceeds to film himself on the stand discussing Aileen’s corrupt attorney (called “Dr. Legal” and being nothing more than a pot-smoking publicity whore). Broomfield also films himself asking questions, which presumably violates the tenets of documentary work (even an off-camera voice can be jarring), but after a bit I didn’t mind. Broomfield grandstands (using several scenes to rattle off his anti-death penalty views), but he’s usually correct, which makes his ego trips relatively harmless. He even manipulates poor Aileen at the very end into “confessing” that her murders were indeed self-defense, although she wants the court to believe she committed first-degree murder so that she can get on with her execution. Aileen changes her story several times (although her last-minute reversal was given when she thought the camera was off), but that is the nature of a psychopath; she has probably lost the ability to distinguish between truth and fiction, assuming if she ever knew the difference to begin with.
In the course of the film we meet Aileen’s best friend, her sister, and even her birth mother, although those interactions do little but reinforce the idea that Aileen was doomed from the start. Fools and bastards always surrounded her, and it is no surprise that she turned so damn violent. Not once did I believe that anyone ever loved Aileen, at least in terms of being a selfless, warm sort of affection that didn’t involve exploitation. Even after her arrest, Aileen was a “symbol” for the legal system and various media and political outlets — a tool to boost careers, sell papers, and provide re-election ammunition for the likes of Jeb Bush. There has to be an angle to Aileen’s life, whether that is “first female serial killer” or “man-hating lesbian butcher.” Without such labels, we are forced to ask the really tough questions about why we lead the so-called civilized world in interpersonal violence and state-sponsored executions. In that way, I liked Broomfield’s editorializing, as it is a twisted nation indeed that deems successful the assembly line killing of the retarded and the mentally ill. At least super states like the Soviet Union slaughtered the “unfit” as a cleansing measure rather than believing such methods acted as deterrents against further crime. That we continue to adhere to such comforting lies as “the death penalty sends a message to potential killers” is little more than a sign that we are as foolish as we are inherently sadistic. Aileen was a horrible woman who contributed nothing to society, so perhaps one could argue for her death for that reason alone (elitist snobs know what I’m talking about here), but spare me the law and order bullshit. She killed, then she died, and society kept trucking along. What’s been accomplished?
But more than this documentary being a rationalization or soapbox for political change, it is a showcase for one of the most bizarre human beings I’ll ever see on film. Aileen is not without her charm, if by that that one means that she is so completely herself, even if that self is a fucked up loon. As a liar and a killer she is certainly the last person I’d want to have coffee with, but as a human being who has managed to evade the conventional at every turn, she is a case study worth getting to know. How indeed does someone get to this point? Where is the source of this terrifying rage? Watch this film on a double-bill with Monster and perhaps it will be possible to address these questions once and for all.