Category: documentary / In category: 6 of 10 / Overall: 44 of 100
While working on ‘Biggie and Tupac’, Nick Broomfield was served with a subpoena to appear as a witness at a hearing to determine Aileen Wuornos’s fitness for execution. It was a decade down the line from ‘The Selling of a Serial Killer’ and Broomfield had remained in touch with Wuornos after that film had been released. He had never stopped believing that Wuornos had killed in self-defence; that of her seven victims, as Wuornos herself put it, “two raped me and five tried”.
‘Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer’ begins like some weird, inverted legal thriller – John Grisham filtered through the refracted vision of, say, David Lynch. Wuornos, after twelve years on Death Row, suddenly changes her story: the killings, she now claims, were done in cold blood and motivated by robbery. At the hearing, she cautions the judge that witnesses appearing in her favour didn’t know her that well. She fires her lawyer. In short, she seems to be doing everything she can to play into the hands of those who want her declared fit for execution.
Chief amongst these parties is Jeb Bush, coming up for re-election and riding a “tough on law and order” ticket. To say the man has an agenda is putting it mildly. Broomfield comes to suspect Wuornos has an agenda as well: after ten years with the death sentence hanging over her, she’s had enough. She wants out. And lethal injection is the only out Wuornos is ever going to get.
When Broomfield attends the hearing, he’s reunited with Steve Glazer, Wuornos’s money-driven and terminally incompetent attorney from the ‘The Selling of a Serial Killer’. Glazer greets Broomfield with a cheery “Fuck you and your documentary.” Broomfield’s appearance at the hearing is over a point of editing in that film and whether Glazer had smoked a joint prior to a visit to Wuornos. Not that it takes Broomfield’s presence in court to establish that Glazer acted outside of Wuornos’s best interests – his own bumbling testimony establishes that.
Broomfield begins to interview some of the other witnesses, who knew Wuornos in childhood and adolescence. He builds up an unremittingly bleak portrait of a young woman, desperate for acceptance and affection and striving for it in all the wrong ways (sexual favours granted arbitrarily and from such a young age that she’d had a child and put it up for adoption by 13), who was pretty much set on a certain course from the outset. The whole glum family history is revealed: the teenage mother who abandoned her after birth; the absent father imprisoned for sodomising an eight-year-old boy who hanged himself in jail; the grandfather not averse to thrashing Wuornos sadistically with a leather belt; the banishment from said individual’s house following the birth of her illegitimate child; nights spent sleeping in a wrecked car up on cinderblocks or in the woods during the winter.
Broomfield also meets Wuornos’s birth mother whose only contribution to the proceedings is to speculate whether Wuornos was brain-damaged owing to a difficult birth. By this point in the documentary, it’s hard not to view Wuornos as a woman fucked over by society from the start. As with the first film, there’s a sense of sympathy for the devil – you can’t get away from the fact that she killed seven men. That’s the one element which has never been in dispute. Perceptionally, however, ‘Life and Death of a Serial Killer’ takes on a different coloration from ‘Selling of a Serial Killer’ when she changes her story regarding the reason for the killings.
In an attempt to understand, Broomfield conducts a series of interviews with Wuornos, including her final interview before her execution. The bulk of the second half of the documentary centres around these interviews. And this is where ‘Life and Death of a Serial Killer’ becomes really disturbing. The decade-long incarceration, virtually a life of solitary confinement, coupled with the shadow of the death sentence as a constant companion has sent Wuornos over the edge.
Although there are moments of lucidity (including a wrenching scene where, thinking the cameras are off, she quietly confides in Broomfield that the killings were self-defence), a good percentage of Wuornos’s interview footage is pure paranoia. She alleges that “sonic pressure” is being channelled into her cell in a deliberate attempt to drive her insane, and that the police had identified her after the first killing but allowed her to continue so they could capitalise on her notoriety as “America’s first female serial killer” through book and movie deals.
Jeb Bush instructs three psychiatrists to evaluate Wuornos. Whereas most mental health practitioners would consider a single evaluation merely a starting point, these guys spent just 15-minutes with Wuornos prior to declaring that she was of sound enough mind to be executed.
The final interview, which the prison authorities organise as a three-ring circus, is painful to watch, with Wuornos clearly mentally unbalanced. Broomfield spares us the actual execution, instead portraying the media’s vulture-like descent around the prison on the day. A prissy official makes a statement and reads out Wuornos’s clearly-not-of-sound-mind last words: “Yes, I would just like to say I'm sailing with the rock, and I'll be back, like ‘Independence Day’ with Jesus, June sixth, like the movie. Big mother ship and all. I'll be back, I'll be back.”
The title ‘Life and Death of a Serial Killer’ is bludgeoningly appropriate. Aileen Wuornos was a product of the American dream gone wrong, her fame a result of the media’s obsession with the dark side of celebrity, and her death a showboating political act. She was imprisoned for what has never been categorically established weren’t acts of self-defence; she was exploited as a commodity, misrepresented and had the death penalty held over her for over a decade. And when she was driven mad, they put her to death.
Fuck you, Jeb Bush.