Aileen Wuornos: Broomfield’s Serial Killer Documentary

“Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer” received its premiere in the Documentary Competition of the 1993 Sundance Film Festival.

In January 1991, Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute in her late 20s, admitted to the murders of seven men, each picked up on a Florida highway. After pleading no contest to the murders, she was sentenced to six life sentences, though she had been tried for only one of the murders

The press had a field day with the story about what they called “the man-hating murderer,” apparently because Wuornos was an admitted lesbian. Her lover Tyria Moore tricked Wuornos into a confession during a telephone call monitored by the police. Wuornos insists that she is not a serial killer, but that she killed the seven men in self-defense

Nick Broomfield, an English filmmaker, had made a fine documentary feature that examines not only the Wuornos story but also the entire socio-cultural phenomenon surrounding it. The surrounding context is often more interesting than the central case per se.

Wuornos is defended by Steve Glazer, an ex-musician turned self made attorney, who seems like a perfect poster by for the smiling, friendly face of evil exploitation. Then, Wuornos is adopted by Arlene Pralle, a born-again Christian and horse farmer just before her murder trial.

Controversies

Director Nick Broomfield is concerned with understanding how the Wuornos murders have turned into such a commercial enterprise, one that approximates the variety of a human zoo.

I will not be surprised is some viewers will buy Broomfield’s view that Wuornos has been betrayed and sacrificed. For example, there are charges that all along members of a county sheriff’s office and Tyria Moore were dealing with film producers about rights to their stories even–before Wuornos confessed.

Unremarked or glossed over in the docu are some crucial facts, among them: the fact that Wuornos had already been arrested and jailed for armed robbery, that she married a much older man and that the marriage broke up on battery charges (each accused the other), that she had a baby at 13 that was taken from her, and that she tried to commit suicide. Also glossed over or not sufficiently examined is the weight of evidence against her charges of self-defense.

The whole film builds up an interview with Wuornos, in which she underscores her position as a victim of abuse who murdered in self-defense. For some reason, Broomfield’s interview is, however, not probing enough. During the interview, Wuornos, who had come across as an incoherent “psycho” in courtroom footage, is far savvier and more articulate in person.

Critical Reaction

As Vincent Canby pointed out in the New York Times, the docu is sometimes funny, but far more often sad and appalling. Essentially, it’s a slice of Americana that will make you cringe with embarrassment as you recognize the society it reveals. In its way of suggesting that justice has not been adequately done, it also recalls Errol Morris’s “Thin Blue Line” (See Review).

Broomfield’s film is properly cynical of the commercial motives behind the case, but it is not skeptical enough about Wuornos. It remains remorseless about the murders and finally becomes an extension of the current vogue in courtroom special pleading: Wuornos is martyred, because of her abusive childhood and her degradation as a prostitute.

Peter Rainer notes in the Los Angeles Times that film presents Wuornos as the first documented female serial killer but what you come away with is something entirely different, that Wuornos is the first politically correct serial killer.

Most critics felt that Broomfield declined to directly address the issue of his subject’s guilt, even though the case clearly has social ramifications beyond its specifics.

Films of Similar Subject and Interest

“Overkill,” a television feature was created about the case, in which Jean Smart played Wuornos.

“Monster,” a fictionalized version of Auileen Wuornos’ case, for which Charlize Theron won the 2003 Best Actress Oscar.

Reserach for this piece was conducted by John Catapano