Aileen “Lee” Wuornos, the subject of Nick Broomfield’s documentary “Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer,” has the hard-bitten look of someone whose life has been hell and who has made a hell of the lives of others. Commentators have often noted how shockingly normal serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy look; Wuornos doesn’t inspire the same befuddlement.
But one of the points of Broomfield’s movie is that perhaps Wuornos is not, in the strictest definition, a serial killer at all. Between 1989 and 1990, while working as a prostitute on a Florida interstate highway, Wuornos shot and killed seven men. While admitting the killings, she repeatedly characterized them during her trial as acts of self-defense, a charge she reiterates during the interview she gives Broomfield at the end of the film.
When we hear Wuornos in the courtroom go into painstaking detail about how her first murder victim sexually tortured her and planned to kill her, she appears to be reliving the horror. It’s almost unbearable to listen to and watch.
If her murders had been confined to that one alone, she probably would have escaped death row. (She’s still there, pending appeal.) But her claims of self-defense in the other six don’t jog the same vehement feminist fury. Wuornos is a jangle of mixed motives: She claims to accept her guilt and wants to be put to death but when she is sentenced she screams at the judge, “May your wife and kids get raped.”
Wuornos’ plea of no contest to one of the murders, which led to her sentencing, was engineered by her attorney Steven Glazer and Arlene Pralle, a born-again Christian and horse farmer who adopted Wuornos just before the murder trial because she claims “Lee” had a “heart of gold.”
Broomfield seems manifestly concerned with how the Wuornos murders have turned into a commercial enterprise. He draws out a Florida policeman, Brian Jarvis, who claims that police officers conspired to sell the rights to the Wuornos case before she had been arrested, and that Wuornos’ estranged female lover Tyria Moore, who some believe was a co-conspirator, was in on the deal in exchange for her freedom.
Broomfield’s tack is to highlight the commercialization of the case and, in the process, to encourage the view that Wuornos has been sacrificed. When she finally relents to be interviewed by him at the end of the film, and underscores her position as a victim of abuse who murdered in self-defense, his interrogation is not very probing.
Unremarked, or glossed over in this film, is the fact that Wuornos had already been arrested and jailed for armed robbery in 1982, that she had married a 70-year-old man in 1976 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, that she had tried to kill herself. Also glossed over or unexamined is the weight of evidence against her charges of self-defense: the fact that all the men she murdered were white men between the ages of 40 and 60 and drove fairly expensive vehicles; that space had been rented by her to store the spoils; that in all the murders she was careful enough to leave behind only one fingerprint; that she was not above trying to cut her own deals.
“The Selling of a Serial Killer” is properly cynical of the commercial motives behind the case but it isn’t skeptical enough about Wuornos, who, despite her entreaties to Broomfield at the end to investigate police corruption, remains remorseless about the murders. The film 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. The film presents her as the first documented female serial killer but what you come away with is something else: Wuornos is the first politically correct serial killer.
* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: It includes much horrific and graphic sexual and violent material. * ‘Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer’
A Strand Releasing presentation. Director Nick Broomfield. Co-Producer Rieta Oord. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. Editors Richard M. Lewis, Rick Vick. Music David Bergeaud. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.