Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer

Nick Broomfield, the English filmmaker, has made an entertaining, if problematic documentary that examines not only the Aileen Wuornos story but also the social-cultural phenomenon around it. In suggesting that justice has not been adequately done, it recalls Errol Morris's Thin Blue Line.

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 given six life sentences, though she had been tried for only one of the murders.

The press had a field day with the story, abeled “the man-hating murderer,” because Wuornos was a 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 acted in self-defense.

Wuornos was defended by Steve Glazer, an ex-musician turned self-made attorney. In a bizarre set of circumstances, Wuornos was then adopted by Arlene Pralle, a born-again Christian and horse farmer just before her murder trial. Broomfield explores how the Wuornos case has turned into a media zoo and commercial enterprise, with Aileen being exploited by various sides. There are charges that the county sheriff's office and Tyria Moore were dealing with film producers about selling their rights to their stories, even before Wuornos made her dramatic confession.

Broomfield declines to address the issue of whether or not Aileen is guilty; the weight of evidence against her charges of self-defense is unexamined. Also glossed over is the fact that Wuornos had already been arrested and jailed for armed robbery, that she married a 70-year-old man and that the marriage broke up on battery charges (with each party accusing the other). The facts that Aileen had a baby at 13 that was taken from her, and that she tried to kill herself are barely mentioned.

When Wuornos is finally interviewed at the end of the film, she underscores her position as a victim of abuse. Broomfield's interview is not probing enough, though Wuornos, who had come across as a psycho in the courtroom footage, is far savvier and more articulate during the interview.

The film is sometimes funny, but more often sad. It's a slice of Americana that would make some audiences cringe with embarrassment regarding the society it reveals.

Though cynical of the commercial motives behind the case, the film 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–she's presented as the first documented female serial killer.