The world can always use another documentary that makes a passionate plea against the death penalty. When a film brings 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 the 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's Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer documented the attempts by her 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, they resigned from the force. Now, ten years later (and with Patty Jenkins' drama of the same events, Monster, currently wowing audiences), he 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 from within a car driving into a lush wood. He pounds the viewer with exposition that we could have gleaned in any number of other ways. Later, Broomfield uses voice-over to express opinions about the politics of the case and to draw conclusions about Wuornos and her emotional and mental states. Is it possible that Broomfield simply doesn't register the cloying, cheapening effect of his voice-over style? Elsewhere, he is compassionate towards 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, during the entire film, he isn't merely a documentarian; he's also a subject. As the movie opens, Wuornos' case is in appeal, and Broomfield is served a subpoena to appear as a witness on behalf of the defense. Joe Hobson, Wuornos' new lawyer, wants to show that her first counsel -- a man alternately known as "Dr. Legal" and "Steve" and 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's 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, he 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 voice-overs. Unfortunately, this penetrating self-reflection is otherwise abandoned. Even as he presents Wuornos' scathing critique of the co-optation of her story for financial gain, Broomfield fails to interrogate his own motives and role.
Meanwhile, Wuornos' story is terrible and wrenching. Name an affliction, and she has suffered it: abuse, abandonment, poverty, preteen pregnancy, homelessness, rape, mental illness and, finally, capital punishment. It is far from surprising that she is a ravaged woman. Whether she's offering an articulate polemic against the society and system that failed her or, via paranoia, impugning the police for purposefully allowing her to kill, she is electrifying. Her suffering is so great, her body such a map of that suffering: huge, manic eyes goggling above her bombed-out face, and a twisted mouth, torn between defense and revelation.
The film's strongest segments are its interviews with Wuornos, in which she is by turns warm, enraged, deceitful, confessional, deluded, and likable. In the end, she 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.