Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 6, 2004)
In 2003’s Monster, we found a somewhat fictionalized account of the murders enacted by Aileen Wuornos, regarded as the first female serial killer. For more information about Wuornos, we head to 2003’s documentary Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer.
Essentially a follow-up to 1992’s Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Aileen follows Wuornos during the months before her execution. It uses the standard format in that we find archival footage, new images of key locations, and various interview segments. In the latter category, we hear from attorney Joe Hobson, “Dr. Legal”, Aileen’s childhood friends Dawn Bodkins and Dennis Allen, childhood sexual partner Danny Cornwall, former boyfriends Jerry Moss and Dick Mills, police officer Brian Jarvis, and estranged biological mother Diane Wuornos. Of course, we find many new clips from Aileen herself as well.
However, the main focus of the program often becomes documentarian Nick Broomfield, the co-director of Aileen. At the start, we examine Hobson’s attempts to discredit low-life attorney “Dr. Legal”, the guy who originally handled Wuornos’s case. Broomfield plays a part in the proceedings due to his earlier documentary.
From there we see Aileen’s attempts to sabotage her own case. She retracts her claims that she killed in self-defense and embraces her path to the execution chamber. We hear how born-again Christian Arlene Prowley adopted Aileen and learn about her former lover Tyria Moore, the apparent inspiration for Monster’s Selby character.
After this Broomfield attempts to piece through Aileen’s past. He goes to her former stomping grounds in Troy, Michigan and we hear about the sexual abuse she endured as well as other indignities via her allegedly nasty grandfather. We find that she got booted from his home and lived in the woods for an extended period.
We get a few notes about her relationship with Tyria as well as her brief and unpleasant marriage to elderly Lewis Fell. All of this eventually leads to Aileen’s final pre-execution interviews, during which she claims the police knew who she was after first killing but let her live so she could become a serial killer.
Much of the film concentrates on Broomfield’s incessant attempts to get Aileen to revert to her old claims that she’d killed in self-defense. Frankly, I can’t accept that someone murdered seven men in self-defense. The first one probably fit the bill, as he apparently abused her, and given Aileen’s work as a street hooker, it’s possible that she received additional threats that could have led to one or maybe even two more murders.
But seven killings? That seems like a real stretch. Nonetheless, it’s one that Broomfield takes, as he essentially spends much of the film trying to save her life.
This creates the documentary’s primary weakness. Broomfield doesn’t seem to see Wuornos’ obvious insanity, and he appears to take much of what she says at face value. He acts as though a statement from her that the killings did occur in self-defense would mean something. It wouldn’t. With all of her erratic behavior and emotional instability, why would that declaration mean anything more than her admissions of guilt?
The film takes a very pro-Aileen agenda, and it becomes clear that Broomfield simply got too close to his subject. This is less a documentary and more of a eulogy for a friend. Granted, Broomfield does let us see Wuornos’ negative side, as she occasionally comes across as pretty nutty. For instance, at one point she threatens violence against the Supreme Court if they delay her execution.
Nonetheless, the movie tries hardest to build a case for Aileen’s defense, one that it doesn’t do terribly well. One problems stem from Aileen’s status as a semi-sequel. It connects moderately heavily to Selling, and if you’ve not seen the prior flick, you may occasionally feel a little loss.
The loose nature of the new program doesn’t help. Aileen suffers from a really rambling progression and often seems unsure of what point it wants to make. Is this a biography, a series of death row interviews, or a defense? Ultimately it ends up in the latter category, but it meanders about in various ways that make it messy and poorly integrated much of the time.
The prime appeal here comes from Broomfield’s access to Wuornos. Unfortunately, those moments fail to satisfy much either. Aileen pushes one agenda: her belief that the police knew of her guilt but let her kill more and more to she’d become a serial killer and they’d make lots of money selling her story. Very little other material appears during their chats, and nothing helps tie together her tale or convince us of anything. Granted, as I noted earlier, it wouldn’t matter; you can’t believe a word Aileen says. But it would have been good to hear more depth about her impressions, off-kilter as they may be.
A moderate amount of interesting material appears during Aileen, but the flick suffers from too strong a personal agenda on the part of the filmmakers. It also plods and rambles due to sloppy editing and no obvious concept of where it wants to go. Clearly the movie wants to push Aileen’s defense, but it doesn’t package the information in a tight way, which makes it tough to watch.