Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer

(Nick Broomfield, UK, 1992)


Those who watch the American news service broadcast on late-night television locally probably received a lurid impression of the trials of Aileen Wuornos some time before documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield (Driving Me Crazy [1988]) managed to hot-foot it to the scene. Here was "America’s first female serial killer", a prostitute and lesbian whose victims were all men, looking fierce under the glare of television cameras as she abused the judge who sentenced her to death.

Broomfield is not interested in the hysterical chords this incident touched off in the American media and the national psyche. He smells a rat or three around Wuornos: especially the doe-eyed Christian woman Arelene Pralle who adopted her, and the singing lawyer Steve Glazer who has Bob Marley’s "Stand Up For Your Rights" as his pre-recorded phone message. Everyone, it seems, is out to make a buck from the movie and print rights to Wuornos’ story – and the deals may have been signed before she was sentenced, or even arrested.

This film is not the unquestionable classic that some have hailed it as. Broomfield is careful to maintain a smug complicity between himself – the acerbic British journalist in an American hick town – and the viewer. He never openly questions himself as to his own prurient interest in Wuornos’ sensational case. Obviously relieved to have uncovered a network of corruption covering the police, the law courts, the media and shonky free-market operators, he overlooks crucial aspects of the story, such as the media representation of lesbianism.

But, over and above any agenda of the director, it is Wuornos herself who emerges as the compelling centre of this documentary. Although her appearances are fleeting – Broomfield spends most of the film unsuccessfully attempting to interview her in jail – her anger and lucidity about the way she has been exploited is riveting.

Wuornos triggers a classic case of ambivalent identification: both a victim and a killer, someone sympathetic and also rather alien, she grips viewers and makes them squirm in their seats. Not since Robert Kramer’s masterpiece Our Nazi (1984) has a documentary packed this kind of wallop.

Wuornos in fiction: Monster

MORE Broomfield: Kurt and Courtney

© Adrian Martin November 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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