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'Aileen' finds sadness behind a monster

In Nick Broomfield's interviews with Aileen Wuornos for his second documentary about her, she has a big, toothy smile and dark eyes that light up in joy and in anger. Her thin hair is always swept up and back, with a lack of drama, into a pompadour that falls straight down her back. From time to time she'll interrupt herself to take a comb to it.

Early on, Broomfield hypothesizes in his narration that people think Wuornos is a "man-hating lesbian prostitute who tarnished the reputations of her victims." In "Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer," she's also a specimen of sadness. Until her execution two years ago, Wuornos spent close to a decade on death row for having murdered seven men on the highways of Central Florida.

Broomfield receives a subpoena to come to the Sunshine State and testify on Wuornos's behalf, so he and his co-director and longtime camera operator Joan Churchill bring along their equipment. Wuornos's lawyer wants to save her from execution, while Wuornos herself seems to have made peace with her sentence, willfully sabotaging the appeal with her insistence that some supporting witnesses have perjured themselves. But they all tell a similar story: Wuornos had a girlhood filled with sexual abuse, pregnancy, and homelessness.

Broomfield first filmed and interviewed her in 1992 for "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer," a movie whose subtext -- that Wuornos's story is being exploited -- is made explicit for this second film by the subject herself. Wuornos's life has a laundry list of betrayals, and her hurt and suspicion have turned into furious paranoia. In "Life and Death," Wuornos, who has several prison meetings with Broomfield, says that she won't talk anymore about whether her crimes were provoked or whether she just shot those men for their wallets.

This is after she's confessed to Broomfield that indeed she didn't kill out of retaliation. Then she goes on to say that she didn't really mean that either. So we never know what to believe. When Broomfield asks why she's agreed to talk to him at all, she tells him, more or less, that it's to say that the cops could have caught Wuornos after her first murder. Instead, she says, they let the bodies accumulate so they could take the story of the first female serial killer to film and TV producers and book publishers and get rich.

On the eve of Wuornos's execution, Broomfield, who's often on camera looking bewildered and wiped out, asks with some sympathy, why, if she knew this, did she continue to kill? She doesn't have much in the way of an answer.

Understandably, Wuornos is annoyed that her life has been turned into commerce -- and this is well before Charlize Theron put on all that weight and makeup and won an Oscar for playing Wuornos in "Monster." The film stands quite chillingly as a final statement from a woman trying to fight her own commodification.

Broomfield is not an analytical filmmaker. His documentaries --"Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam," "Kurt & Courtney," and "Biggie & Tupac" -- tend to be ruthlessly investigative and conspiratorial adventures in pop culture. But "Aileen" is Broomfield working compassionately. Perhaps it's only because he knows he can't save Wuornos that he can offer her as she might have been: part wounded animal, part self-destructive martyr, and all tragedy.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer
Directed by: Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill
At: Kendall Square, through May 27
Running time: 89 minutes
Rated: R (Language, including violent and sexual dialogue)

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