AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER
***/**** Image B Sound B
directed by Nick Broomfield & Joan Churchill
**/**** Image A Sound A Extras C+
starring Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen
written and directed by Patty Jenkins
by Bill Chambers If the documentary's renaissance needed further confirmation, it's either the propagation of sequels to non-fiction films (nothing nestles a genre into the mainstream like second chapters), or the commercial synergy that has so flagrantly asserted itself in the marketing of Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill's Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer--a quasi-continuation, as it happens, of Broomfield's own 1992 Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Of course, it was one thing for Lantern Lane Entertainment to time the theatrical release of Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (henceforth Aileen 2) so that it surfed the ripples of hype generated by the splash-landing of Newmarket's Monster, and it's another thing for Sony, their common home video distributor, to unleash the two films on DVD simultaneously. But for NY MAGAZINE to print "Aileen Wuornos, the subject of Charlize Theron's Monster, distills absolutely terrifying interviews with the late serial killer," and for Columbia TriStar to then splatter that quote on the back of the Aileen 2 disc, signifies a blurring of divides more critical than ever in this age of reality-TV. Neither Theron nor Wuornos deserves to become inextricably associated with the other's (mis)deeds over a marketing crutch; Monster probably should've been called Aileen Wuornos for Dummies, but it wasn't, and that's the point.
One of Broomfield's hastier exposÃ©s (for starters, it was shot entirely on consumer DV instead of his typical 16mm), Aileen 2 became a film more or less on the spur of the moment when the documentarian was subpoenaed to testify at one of Wuornos's pre-execution hearings. His ego perversely inflated by the invitation (he thought he was embarking on a career as an amateur criminologist), Broomfield learned practically on the stand that he was only there to tie a loose end involving Wuornos's ex-lawyer Steve Glazer (a.k.a. "Dr. Legal"), the centre of attention in Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Still, this brief court appearance enabled him to re-establish contact with Wuornos, which led to a series of interviews that depict nothing so much as a suicidal woman using a high-profile filmmaker to expedite her death sentence. Unpersuasively, Wuornos confesses to committing perjury in her testimony that she killed in self-defense, saying that she was once and always motivated to take lives by monetary needs. Whenever Broomfield pokes holes in this change of heart, her attention span miraculously wanes, or she redefines the parameters of the interview as a deposition.
Aileen 2 lets posterity dictate the movie's agenda. As Broomfield passive-aggressively assumes the Bitsy Bloom role, he gives the lie to a multitude of Death Row thrillers that enshrine the field of investigative journalism: In a perpetual state of controlled panic, Broomfield sacrifices whatever skills he has as an interviewer to the obligation of redeeming Wuornos. In so doing, he's turned into a mike-wielding Galahad trying to save the dragon that ate the princess; by the time Dawn Botkins apologizes on her best friend's behalf for forgetting to flip Nick the bird, Broomfield is the official last man emasculated by "America's first female serial killer" in one form or another. Wuornos took charge of her own exploitation with this film after years of being screwed over by supposed allies who gradually revealed themselves to be opportunists: the police; her attorney; and her lesbian lover, Ty.
One of the reasons her crazy-lady act (she claims, for starters, that sonic waves were fed into her cell on Death Row to immobilize her thought processes) fails to convince is because Broomfield verifies, through an ethically debatable bait-and-switch, that Wuornos reverted to total victimhood in the absence of a recording device. Thus a Michael Moore-ian aside in which Broomfield takes Florida's sitting-duck governor Jeb Bush to task for deeming Wuornos sane enough to keep an appointment with Old Sparky conjures the image of a fish flapping around in a glass-bottom boat. Broomfield's misplaced exasperation is almost poignant.
Nothing in Patty Jenkins's Monster is as penetrating as Aileen 2's closing credits usage of Natalie Merchant's "Carnival" ("I've walked these streets/In the mad house asylum/They can be/Where a wild eyed misfit prophet/On a traffic island stopped/And he raved of saving me")--the song that Wuornos requested as her funeral dirge. Where this single soundtrack selection of Aileen 2 is pointed, even prophetic, the music in Monster is strictly prosaic (a love scene following a murder scene is banally accompanied by Tommy James & The Shondells' "Crimson And Clover") and illustrative of the movie's tendency to take the path of less resistance. Justly honoured by the Academy, Theron proves an inspired casting choice: her natural beauty suppressed, she empathizes with Wuornos's peculiar narcissism, and this manifests itself in a reflex mimicry of the constantly self-primping woman we encounter in Aileen 2. As Aileen's lover Selby, a fictionalization of the aforementioned Ty, Christina Ricci was accurately characterized in Theron's Oscar speech as the "unsung hero" of Monster: Though Selby personifies Aileen's salvation, Ricci drops any pretense of precociousness in the early going, a move that would seem as humbling for her as gaining weight was for the slender Theron. But Jenkins's dilettantish screenplay foils both actresses with a Persona intrigue (Selby and Aileen patly swap butch/lipstick roles) that restores the blonde Theron and brunette Ricci to their Hollywood packaging of Traumatized Barbie and Trampy Barbie, respectively. See Walter Chaw's piece for a more in-depth review.
Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer arrives on DVD in a straight port of the video master. (There was no celluloid intermediary, in other words.) The 1.33:1 image looks only slightly degraded from the camcorder originals, and the Dolby Surround soundtrack, monophonic in nature, is similarly unexceptional. The disc launches with a forced but skippable block of trailers for Monster, Secret Window, Trapped, and In the Cut; the trailer for Monster is also accessible via the main menu--and that's it for extras.
The Monster platter offers a slightly bigger bounty. The film's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer rings all the lushness it can from Steven Bernstein's flatly-lit cinematography. Shadow detail is excellent and the source print is much cleaner than the one utilized for generating clips during the 2003 awards season. A 5.1 mix is presented in both Dolby Digital and DTS, the former squelching BT's aggressively discrete score where the latter brings it to dizzying life. Trailers for Secret Window and Wild Things 2 precede the main menu while others for In the Cut as well as the domestic and international releases of Monster are accessible via the "previews" sub-menu.
Under Special Features, find Gabriel Condon's "Based on a True Story: The Making of Monster" (14 mins.), wherein a proprietary attitude towards Wuornos creates something of a second monster in Jenkins. Resurfacing here to endorse Theron (who packs her Wuornos poundage in interview footage), Botkins gets more face time than Ricci, perhaps due to legalities concerning Selby's real-life counterpart. Whatever the case, it took two to tango, so the piece, with all its focus on Theron and her transformation, feels curiously lopsided. The very definition of filler, a "Film Mixing Demo" allows the viewer to watch the fairgrounds sequence with isolated dialogue, music, or effects or any combination of the three, while a commercial for the DTS version of the soundtrack CD ("Monster 'Surrounded'") and the choppy "Interview with Patty Jenkins & BT" (16 mins.) round out the disc. BT's confession that his compositions for the film were "conceived from the ground up in 5.1" is revelatory, but did he have to go and characterize the results as Copland-esque? (W.G. Snuffy Walden-esque, maybe.) The keepcase itself includes an insert hawking lurid true-crime thrillers from the studio. Originally published: May 25, 2004.