Dead on arrival 

Grueling Aileen presents more questions than answers

Depending upon your philosophical or political leanings, serial killer Aileen Wuornos was a victimized woman unfairly demonized by the media. Or she was proof that women kill as viciously as men, and her execution in October 2002 was justified comeuppance.

Whatever one's perception of the Florida prostitute and drifter who killed seven of her johns during the late 1980s and early '90s, interest in Wuornos is apparently evergreen.

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, the second of British filmmaker Nick Broomfield's documentaries about Wuornos, joins a growing catalog of Hollywood films (including the recent Monster), books and websites dedicated to her misdeeds. In Aileen, Broomfield documents Wuornos' final appeal from the death row where she sat for 12 years.

If it is possible, this "sequel" is even more grim than Broomfield's previous film, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, which showed how Wuornos' defense was pathetically botched by her incompetent, pothead TV lawyer. Aileen II opens with the news that in addition to her defense attorney's gross incompetence, several police investigators (later relieved from duty) engaged in negotiations with Hollywood to sell details of Wuornos' case while she was still standing trial.

In Broomfield's indictment of the death penalty, Wuornos' execution became a political chess piece played by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who emerges in Aileen as one the most detached, cold-blooded serial killers to date.

Aileen is a sobering revelation of the corruption that underpins the meting out of capital punishment. It is also Broomfield's most compassionate film, free of the ironic distance that has characterized so much of his previous work. The documentary not only catches viewers up, it moves backward, too, reaching into the grim circumstances that gave birth to Aileen, the media phenomenon. Abandoned by her birth mother, pregnant at 13, and abandoned yet again by her grandparents, Wuornos' formative years were spent living alone in the freezing Michigan woods. Neighborhood boys paid her for sex, often with as little as a cigarette.

All of that additional information makes her adult actions more understandable and pitiable. Aileen does not necessarily clarify issues of police corruption, but it does provide a fuller picture of Aileen's degraded existence. Broomfield forces viewers to confront the reality of a system that prefers ultimatums and clear-cut answers to ambiguity. He comes across as a far more humane and sensitive guide to American culture than Michael Moore, whose flawed but revealing documentary Bowling for Columbine shares similarities with Aileen. Both leave a bitter aftertaste as they get beneath the skin of an America too often defined by violence.

One soon understands why, near the end, Wuornos had begun to sabotage her own appeals case and was begging to have the executioner's needle plunged into her arm rather than endure more "help." Every attempt at saving Wuornos from lethal injection only heaps the muck higher, adding fuel to her bottom-line contention that "to me this world is nothing but evil."

At one point, anxious to have her execution over and done with, Wuornos calls a meeting with Broomfield and tells him that contrary to her court testimony, none of the murders were in self-defense. Sometime later, Broomfield fools Wuornos into thinking his camera is off. She admits that, indeed, she was raped and acted in self-defense. It doesn't exactly feel like a victorious moment.

Despite clearly noble intentions, Broomfield's efforts to help are like watching someone trying to bring relief by scratching a wound, repeatedly opening it up, drawing more and more blood.

What is so dispiriting and emotionally grueling about Aileen is that the dramatic tension has evaporated since that first Broomfield documentary. We know that Wuornos is dead, and what is left behind is an ugly sense of helplessness. We bear witness with no hope of changing these events, standing next to Broomfield as he sifts through the burned remains of someone else's life to find something of significance.



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