Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer

As buzz about Netflix’s Making of a Murderer series keeps growing and theories about its subjects’ innocence or guilt swirl around, I’m pulled back once again to the documentary that complicated my entire outlook on guilt and justice.

This is one of those movies that everyone should see.

Aileen Wuornos’s life and crimes are well-known, with a handful of adaptations over the years.  She even appeared on the most recent series of American Horror Story.  To Lily Rabe’s credit, she did an incredible job portraying her, but every time I encounter Aileen and her story I’m tugged back to this documentary.

I don’t believe in ghosts, and I think it’s probably hyperbole to say it haunts me – but it’s certainly weighed very heavily on me since I saw it a couple of years ago.  I was at university, and in the midst of a documentary addiction.  I spotted the film on Channel 4, and despite not being a great lover of crime stories, it caught my interest.  I’m glad it did.

The documentary is made very respectfully, but despite that it still feels very honest, open and raw.  It would have been easy to keep a safe distance from Aileen to avoid the risk of offence, both literally and emotionally; you often see TV documentaries that discuss killers by narrating the events of their lives over their mugshots, as if they’re barely real.  Broomfield, however, doesn’t shy away from portraying Aileen as an individual as opposed to a case file.  In this instance, the subject is best served by this approach – being brought up close and personal.

Charlize Theron’s Aileen Wuornos is featured in a movie called Monster.  Here, however, Aileen is firmly, inescapably human.

After all, we often talk about killers in (literally) demonising terms.  It’s just a metaphor, but it’s common to see ‘he’s a monster’ or ‘she’s a demon’.  We should probably more often remind ourselves that no matter how much we would like to think that serial killers are all visibly evil to the core and composed of no other elements, that’s not actually the case.  Serial killers look and act much like us; they have hobbies, they have memories, and they have those dreams so relaxing you don’t want to wake up from them.  Of course that doesn’t make what they’ve done any more palatable.  In fact, I think it makes it worse, and a lot scarier – but the point is that there is always something more complicated.  We have a responsibility to acknowledge that the people who committed these crimes weren’t born fully-formed out of some raging fiery pit just to hurt other people, and to try to understand what made them act like they did.

This is the responsibility that Nick Broomfield took up in making this documentary, and he did it great justice.  What the film does very well is to remind us that no criminal case is ever simple – not even one in which a woman is known to have murdered seven different men.  Her guilt is unquestionable, and no amount of mitigating circumstances could change that, but Aileen’s history of rape, abuse and living conditions alone should suggest that she may have deserved help more so than a death sentence – and that’s without her wildly fluctuating versions of events, claims that she should be killed, mood swings, and passionate belief in conspiracy theories added to the list.  Alongside Aileen’s mental health stand several other factors, including media demonisation of her – queer female prostitute murders her male clients? field day – and the legal system itself.

In my view the documentary does have one failing in that I’d prefer to have delved more deeply into Wuornos’s lawyer.  He is covered much more closely in Broomfield’s first Aileen Wuornos documentary, so maybe it makes sense not to cover the same ground twice, but judging it as a stand-alone film it feels a little lacking in that area.  (It’s interesting that Broomfield chose to make two films about Aileen – maybe suggesting that he felt a little haunted by her story, too.  It’s the kind of conversation that isn’t cathartic enough if you only have it once.)

This is the smallest of shortcomings, though.  As a whole it’s darkly fascinating, frustrating and powerful.  More than anything, it’s deeply sad.  So – especially if anybody enjoyed the aforementioned Making of a Murderer and hasn’t yet seen this, I cannot recommend it enough.  Just don’t expect to think about much else any time soon.

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