Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer looks at Aileen Wuornos, the human

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 05: Filmmaker Nick Broomfield attends the "My Father and Me" screening during the 57th New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on October 05, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/Getty Images for Film at Lincoln Center)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 05: Filmmaker Nick Broomfield attends the "My Father and Me" screening during the 57th New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on October 05, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/Getty Images for Film at Lincoln Center) /

As a documentary filmmaker, Nick Broomfield (director of Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer)
carved out an interesting path as a provocative voice. In his infamous Kurt & Courtney, he investigates (and probably invigorates) claims that Courtney Love was involved in the death of Kurt Cobain.

To exemplify the film’s scandalous content, there’s an interesting interview with shock-rocker El Duce, who claimed he was offered $50,000 to kill Cobain (and, as a bit of an eerie coincidence, El Duce died after being struck by a freight train not long after the bizarre interview).(SOURCE: Simmonds, Jeremy (2012). The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars: Heroin, Handguns, and Ham Sandwiches.)

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (a follow-up to his previous documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer) is no less scandalous. Not only does it deal with circumstances surrounding the trial of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, but also the hellish life she endured as a child, young adult. Basically, this serial killer had grown up in an abusive home, to put it lightly. In one of the documentary’s most startling revelations, we learn that Wuornos was kicked out of her home by her grandfather and had to live in the woods! These moments are the key elements that fascinate me about this documentary.

‘Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer’ reveals the hell next door

It would be easy to relegate the abuse highlighted here to the stuff of “uneducated hillbillies” (or whatever). However, it’s not a good idea. As far as this review is concerned, these kinds of scenes could become the new normal anywhere, should we let them. Broomfield paints a picture of someone who, at every turn, was prevented from advancing as a person. This includes the film’s strong implication that her lawyer, Steven “Dr. Legal” Glazer, gave a less-than-stellar performance in her defense, assuring she’d probably receive the death penalty.

Of course, some might wonder if Broomfield is too interested in portraying Wuornos as a victim, and I’ve also read the criticism that Aileen was playing him like a fiddle, pretending to be mentally ill as a last-ditch effort to get her sentence re-evaluated. How much of the film is real? How much is for show?

My local connection to this movie

This is a bit awkward to say, but I have some vague, tangential connections to Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. No, I don’t appear in the film or anything like that, but Nick Broomfield does visit Aileen Wuornos’ mother, Diane Wuornos, in the little city of Calumet, Michigan — about 12 miles from where I currently live. If that’s not enough, a former co-worker of mine once even told me he knows someone who actually had sex with Aileen Wuornos. That sounds like a possibly empty boast and yes, it’s entirely anecdotal but is surprisingly plausible given Aileen’s reputation (if not mythology) as not just a prostitute/serial killer but an occasional party animal (some scenes in this documentary lend themselves to that impression).

So, whenever I watch this movie, it hits a little close to home in a somewhat literal way. Of course, after Aileen Wuornos’ execution, Broomfield’s call to action against the death penalty rings a bit more hollow, but the close proximity of Aileen’s mother makes the case a little less abstract. Interestingly, even though my area has a low murder rate, Broomfield could have also delved into other local murder links.

For example, Richard Speck, the mass murderer of 8 Chicago nurses, once tried to initiate a knife fight in a bar my dad used to frequent, not long before Speck became a fugitive murderer. In other words, one needn’t live in a “big city” to have interesting local connections to, if not actual run-ins with, murderers.   It’s not very reassuring, but it is interesting.  (SOURCE: The Crime of the Century: Richard Speck and the Murders That Shocked a Nation Kindle Edition, pg. 293)

The legacy of Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer

As a serial killer documentary, I think this one is fairly overlooked. Given how many serial killer podcasts there are, it’s always refreshing to see someone being more proactive and actually interviewing killers and showing us locations like their childhood homes. Broomfield even shows us the location where Aileen purportedly camped in the woods during what must have been an awful winter. Also, despite being against the death penalty, Broomfield doesn’t simply make this an anti-execution piece, and always makes it clear when he’s giving his own personal opinions.

Though often a documentary filmmaker, Nick Broomfield has occasionally made non-documentary films, such as 2007’s Battle for Haditha (about the Haditha killings of Iraqi civilians. It’s obvious that Broomfield’s chosen material doesn’t tend to be silly. However, not literally everything has to be particularly entertaining to be engaging. Broomfield knows how to pick interesting subjects, regarding issues, people, and people who have issues, and is not afraid to immerse himself in the story, teetering right on the edge of crossing the line. That prevents him from being merely a documentary filmmaker and more provocative.

That probably sounds negative, but in Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, he manages to not be trashy with his approach. I wouldn’t say this is my all-time favorite movie, but it’s definitely among the best documentaries I have seen (and I promise you, I watch documentaries reasonably often). Broomfield also conveys that stories like Aileen’s are important, and not just because she was a scandalous serial killer, but because her life of criminality may have been preventable. Her story is a part of our story, whether we like it or not, and there is more to do with such a story than to condemn, downplay, or mock it.

What are your thoughts on Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, serial killer Aileen Wuornos, or Nick Broomfield’s documentaries? Let us know in the comments!

Next. 20 series cancelled too soon (and five we would trade to get them back). dark