The world can always use another documentary that makes a passionate plea against the death penalty. When a film takes us inside a particular case to show us how the system has failed to serve justice -- how politics, errant logic, reactionary fear, classism and racism govern the use of capital punishment, and how even a cursory look into a perpetrator's formative years almost inevitably reveals a series of horrors -- the result can be a powerful tool for change.
That's why it's such a shame that Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, the second documentary from director Nick Broomfield to follow the misfortunes of the Florida prostitute-turned-killer, is marred by gratuitous narration and a tone of tabloid sensationalism.
Broomfield, a Brit whose films include Biggie and Tupac (2002), Kurt and Courtney (1998) and Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1994), is a stranger neither to sensation nor to Aileen Wuornos. In 1992, two years after Wuornos was sentenced to death for the murders of seven men, Broomfield released Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, in which he documented the attempts by Wuornos's adoptive mother and lawyer to profit from the story. The film also revealed that several of the police officers in the case had struck media deals; eventually, these officers resigned from the force. Now, ten years later (with Patty Jenkins's drama of the same events, Monster, currently wowing audiences in theaters), Broomfield returns with the rest of the story.
Which, for whatever reason, he narrates. The film opens with Broomfield's loud, leaden voice powering over footage taken from within a car driving into a lush wood; he pounds the viewer with exposition that could have been gleaned in any number of other ways. (These first few minutes are the film's worst; things do improve, though they never transcend this flaw.) Later, Broomfield uses voiceover to express opinions about the politics of the case and to draw conclusions about Wuornos and her emotional and mental states. For a while, you may puzzle over where you have heard this precise quality of bombast; then you'll realize, perhaps with a flash of distaste, that its smarmy vintage is Robin Leach. Is it possible that Broomfield simply doesn't register the cloying, cheapening effect of his voiceover style? Elsewhere, he is compassionate toward his subject and sensitive to the gravity of the case.
Meanwhile, Broomfield's voice is far from the only part of him that makes an appearance. In fact, throughout the film, he isn't merely a documentarian -- he's also a subject. As the movie opens, Wuornos's case is in appeal, and Broomfield is served a subpoena to appear as a witness in behalf of the defense. Joe Hobson, Wuornos's new lawyer, wants to show that her first counsel -- a man alternately known as "Dr. Legal" and "Steve," who once smoked seven joints before giving her legal advice -- was inept. To do so, Hobson interviews Broomfield about his experiences with Dr. Legal and shows clips from the 1992 documentary depicting the lawyer soliciting and accepting money for interviews. Then, when both Broomfield and his film are cross-examined, the prosecutor accuses Broomfield of editing to serve a pro-Wuornos agenda. In the infamous pot-smoking segment, Dr. Legal appears first in one shirt and then another. Could Broomfield have spliced together two different scenes? On the stand, he says he didn't do it.
It is one of the film's best moments. Suddenly, the man who is supposed to serve as our guide through a dense thicket of questionable characters and events is challenged; we watch a film in which Broomfield watches his previous film and attempts to defend it. By sharing this moment, Broomfield invites us into the process of constructing the story. It's a graceful move, nuanced and smart, in direct opposition to the didacticism of the voiceovers. Unfortunately, this penetrating self-reflection (catalyzed, of course, by the prosecutor and not by Broomfield) is otherwise abandoned. Even as he pre-sents Aileen's scathing critique of the co-opting of her story for financial gains, Broomfield fails to interrogate his own motives and role.
Meanwhile, Wuornos's story is terrible and wrenching. Name an affliction, and she has suffered it: abuse, abandonment, poverty, pre-teen pregnancy, homelessness, rape, mental illness and, finally, capital punishment. It is far from surprising that she is a ravaged woman, highly flammable and with a tenuous attachment to reality. Whether she's offering an articulate polemic against the society and system that failed her or, via paranoia, impugning the police for purposely allowing her to kill, she is an electrifying presence. Her suffering is so great; her body is such a map of that suffering: huge, manic eyes goggling above her bombed-out face, a twisted mouth torn between defense and revelation.
The film's strongest segments are the interviews with Wuornos, in which she is alternately warm, enraged, deceitful, confessional, deluded and likable. In the end, Wuornos rises above the film like a force of nature: No matter how much of his unexamined self Broomfield allows into the film, it's Wuornos and her shell-shocked face that we remember -- that, indeed, we can't possibly forget.
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