Robin’s Underrated Gems: Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)


In 2003, Charlize Theron took everyone by surprise when she showcased her previously untapped acting talent and delivered an Academy Award-winning performance as notorious serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. Sure, it was easy to be cynical and point out that Theron did the two acting tricks the Academy seems to love: she portrayed a real-life person and she underwent physical transformation to make herself look unattractive. However, shortly after Monster came out, a documentary called Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer was released. This film contained a lot of interview footage with the real-life Aileen Wuornos, allowing you to see what an astonishing job Theron did of emulating her. I saw the documentary shortly after watching Monster and with Charlize Theron’s convincing performance so fresh in my mind, I would often forget that I wasn’t actually watching Theron being interviewed onscreen. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer is harrowing look at Aileen Wuornos’ life and her last days before she was executed for her crimes on October 9, 2002. The film was directed by controversial British documentarian Nick Broomfield, who had previously chronicled Wuornos’ story in the 1993 documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. That documentary generated a lot of controversy about Wuornos’ death sentence and when Broomfield was subpoenaed to testify at one of her appeal hearings, he decided to make a follow-up film. While watching Life and Death of a Serial Killer, you’re aware that Aileen Wuornos did terrible things and deserved to be punished for them, but you also can’t help but feel sympathy for her because she was exploited by virtually everyone she ever knew and never had a chance.

For those of you unfamiliar with her story, Aileen Wuornos was sentenced to death for the murders of seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990, whom she had all shot while working as a prostitute. Since female serial killers were such a rare breed, the case became a complete media circus when she was captured. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer chronicled how much Aileen was exploited during her trial as some Florida police officers would actually be fired for attempting to negotiate a movie deal with Hollywood about her life story. Aileen was also represented by an incompetent, pot-smoking lawyer who advertised himself as “Dr. Legal” on his low-rent late-night TV commercials and seemed like a real-life Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad. He only took Aileen’s case because he thought he could cash in on the potential money which might be made from her story. Aileen would be granted an appeal hearing for her execution in 2001 on the grounds that her original defense counsel was ineffective. Nick Broomfield is called in to testify at her hearing, as his documentary is used as potential evidence to showcase Dr. Legal’s incompetence. Broomfield then uses this opportunity to film several more interviews with Aileen and delve further into her backstory. Aileen eventually reaches the point where she decides to stop all her appeals because she just wants to get her execution over with. While Aileen always claimed that her victims attempted to rape her and she merely shot them in self-defense, she finally admits this was all a lie. The problem is that she keeps changing this story numerous times throughout the film and it becomes clear that Aileen is just saying whatever she thinks will help speed up the waiting time for her execution.

Some of the most harrowing parts of this documentary chronicle Aileen’s childhood. We learn that Aileen’s mother abandoned her when she was only four years ago and that her father was a schizophrenic sex offender who was already in prison when she was born. Aileen was raised by her abusive grandfather and was sexually assaulted by both him and her brother. After becoming pregnant and giving birth at the age of 13, Aileen would eventually be kicked out of her home and forced to live in the woods. She would turn to prostitution in order to support herself and it became pretty much the only lifestyle she knew. While the film never tries to justify or excuse Aileen’s crimes, you cannot help but feel horrible for her since she seemed to live the roughest life imaginable and was just not destined to turn out well. Even though Nick Broomfield’s top priority with Aileen Wuornos was to make her the subject of a compelling documentary, it’s probably not much of an exaggeration to say that he treated her more fairly than anyone else she ever knew in her entire life. Because of this, Broomfield is granted unfettered access to her. Looking at their conversations together, you can’t help but think that Aileen might have turned out to be a very likable, charming person if her circumstances had been different. Even though a lot of Aileen’s interviews are several minutes long, they are never less than mesmerizing to watch. Of course, once she starts spouting off conspiracy theories about secret radio waves being beamed into her cell to drive her crazy, it seems obvious that she is not of sound mind. The documentary’s climax is especially harrowing. Broomfield is allowed to film Aileen’s final interview on the day before her execution and it is blatantly obvious that the state of Florida is about to execute an insane, mentally ill woman.

Broomfield uses Aileen’s story to make a statement about the problems with the death penalty. Aileen’s execution took place only one month before Jeb Bush was running for re-election as governor of Florida and it’s clear that he wanted to use her death as a political maneuver to gain public support.  Bush sent some state psychiatrists to examine Aileen to make sure she was mentally fit to be executed. We learn that they only examined her for 15 minutes before giving the green light for the execution, but it’s obvious to anyone who watches Aileen’s final interview that she is not mentally fit. But at the same time, it seems that Aileen wants to be executed, so that she can finally put an end to the hell which is her life. Should her execution be stopped if Aileen really wants to die? Or should her mental issues prevent her from being allowed to make that decision? Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer provides no easy answers. Nick Broomfield has made a lot of controversial documentaries, including Kurt and Courtney, which implied that Courtney Love may have been involved in the death of Kurt Cobain, and Biggie & Tupac, which presented numerous conspiracy theories about the murders of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. There’s no doubt that Broomfield can be exploitative and embrace sensationalist, tabloid-style journalism and the same holds true for this film. However, you can’t deny that he makes a lot valid points and provides a very compelling indictment of the legal system. In the end, Aileen: Life and Death of Serial Killer is undeniably one of the most fascinating studies ever conducted on a serial killer. Whether you sympathize with Aileen Wuornos or not, you will still come away with an understanding of why people like her can wind up doing the horrible things they do.

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