Fifteen months after her state-sanctioned death by lethal injection in a Florida prison, convicted serial killer Aileen Wuornos has never been more popular. Currently on display in the fictionalized art-house shocker "Monster," starring Charlize Theron and some impeccably crafted prosthetic teeth, Wuornos is now at the center of a non-exploitative, gratifyingly humanizing documentary from Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill called "Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer." Think of it as the anti-monster movie.
This is the second film that Broomfield, a British documentarian with an estimable resume ("Biggie & Tupac"), has made about Wuornos. The first, "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer," released in 1992, traced the media sideshow and police-corruption scandal that followed in the wake of her arrest. Before she was captured in 1991, Wuornos shot to death seven men in a yearlong spree while working as a prostitute along Florida highways. On her arrest, she was anointed the country's first female serial killer, a title that earned her intense media scrutiny. The attention didn't go to Wuornos' head — at least not at first — but it raged like a fever through various side players, including the born-again Christian wolf-breeder who adopted her and some cops who tried to profit from her story.
You have to wonder if Wuornos had had as many friends during her brutal, unhappy life as she had after her arrest whether her life would have been half as brutal or unhappy. Wuornos endured unspeakable abuse from an early age. Born in Michigan in 1956, she may have suffered brain damage during her breech birth; in some fashion, she never turned right side up. Her teenage mother gave her up after six months and her young father hung himself in jail after being charged with another child's molestation. Wuornos began swapping sex for cigarettes at age 9 and, after giving birth at 13, was tossed out of her home. She took to sleeping in nearby woods, where this girl, who Broomfield labels "the local untouchable," survived by trading sex for food and shelter.
Broomfield shot his first documentary on Wuornos without the help of Churchill, his longtime on-again, off-again collaborator and gifted cinematographer. He had started out making observational documentaries, those fly-on-the-wall films in which the filmmaker is neither seen nor heard, before developing a more personal, aggressively in-our-face style. In this approach — one shared by Ross McElwee ("Sherman's March") and, more famously, Michael Moore — the filmmaker becomes an actor in the developing story and is most often seen either lurking at the edges of the frame or hogging the image. This tack has its deficits (Broomfield's on-camera persona can be irritatingly supercilious, though less so with Churchill on board), but one of its pluses is that it makes visible the machinery of nonfiction filmmaking. You may not like Broomfield, but you know where to pin the blame.
Questions about truth, objectivity and the filmmaker's role always loom large in nonfiction filmmaking, whether or not the documentarian inserts him or herself into the mix, but it takes on startling urgency in "Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer." In early 2001, Broomfield was served a subpoena to testify in Wuornos' final appeal. Along with a few stragglers from her childhood, including men who, as boys, had used and abused her sexually decades earlier, Broomfield was called to offer his testimony. As the filmmaker explains in voice-over, he thought he was being asked to give his opinion about the legal system; what he quickly discovered, however, was that the state prosecutor pressing for the death penalty was trying to use the first Wuornos documentary to strengthen his case against her.
What happened and why during Broomfield's testimony — the episode unexpectedly turned into a meta-critique of this specific style of documentary filmmaking — makes for gripping cinema. There's something intellectually bracing about an investigative documentarian like Broomfield compelled to defend his work and his methods, and under oath, no less. Like many journalists, nonfiction filmmakers tend to smooth raw material into commercially viable narratives, a strategy that's at once defensible and, as Broomfield discovers on the stand, laced with tripwires. That's interesting stuff, all right, but what makes it doubly fascinating — and, by turns, also funny, depressing and weirdly touching — is that Broomfield defends his work in front of Wuornos, who sits in the courtroom and watches the state prosecutor rip into the first documentary with rapt attention.
It's uncertain how much Wuornos, who at that point came across as incontrovertibly insane, understood about what was happening. After years in solitary, she just wanted to die and was trying everything to thwart her defense. Kill me, she all but begs, looking straight into Broomfield and Churchill's camera. Whatever you feel about the death penalty, it's hard not to wonder if answering her wish was, in the end, an act of kindness. The world had dumped on Wuornos from the day she was born. That she murdered seven men remains as unforgivable as it is irreducible to socio-psychological explanation, but it's also true that the killing spree ignited the moment the world turned its back on her. She was guilty, no doubt, but as this immensely moving film makes clear, Aileen Wuornos was also heartbreakingly human.
'Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer' MPAA rating: Not rated Times guidelines: Adult language and themes Released by Lantern Lane Entertainment in association with HBO/Cinemax Films. Directors Nick Broomfield, Joan Churchill. Producer Jo Human. Editor Claire Ferguson. Camera Joan Churchill. Original music Rob Lane. Sound editor Stephen Murphy. Production coordinator Joanne Harkins. Sound mixer Aad Wirtz. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes At selected theaters.