(Quick aside before my actual review. We’re on sort of a hot streak here with reviews. Lots of very good or great films lately. And you have to love it when that happens. Makes me remember why I do this blog in the first place.)
I’m going to put forth a rather unpopular position to hold here in the United States. It’s so unpopular, in fact, that if one is running for President of the United States and holds this policy position, they are essentially unelectable. I don’t believe in the death penalty at all. I used to be ardently pro-capital punishment. It was one of my token conservative beliefs (in the face of my otherwise liberal/European political disposition). Yet, after readingJohn Grisham’s non-fiction crime novel, An Innocent Man, I had a fairly sudden and decisive change of heart. The possibility that a single innocent man can be executed invalidates the entire process, and the class and racial disparities inherent in who is actually executed speaks to an inherent inequality and bias to the system. The rest of the world has realized what a barbaric and uncivilized system it is, but here in America we cling to the archaic practice with an almost religious fervor.
One of my problems with the death penalty in its practical use (let alone philosophical oppositions to having the power to end someone’s life) arises from the nature of our legal system. The vast majority of people involved in deciding whether someone should face the death penalty as well as carrying out the investigation and prosecution of the case are publicly elected officials. Politicians (or in this case prosecuting attorneys and judges) have a vested interest in remaining office. The primary way they do this is by not seeming weak on crime. What’s a great way to seem tough on criminals? Execute as many as possible. The way they are chosen for their job creates a feedback loop that places performing in a manner in line with the image they want to project to their constituency ahead of actual justice. The 1992 documentary film Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer explores both this issue as well as the money and media circus that prevented America’s first alleged female serial killer from having her fair shot at justice.
For those born in the 90s or who haven’t seen Monster or simply don’t remember the deluge of press when Aileen Wuornos was finally executed in 2002, Aileen Wuornos was a prostitute who killed seven men along the Florida interstates between 1989 and 1990. Her claim was that she was acting in self-defense and that each of the men had either raped her or were trying to rape her. British director Nick Bromfield traveled to the U.S. after she had been convicted of the first several of the murders (but not all of them yet) and sentenced to death and interviews her shockingly inept attorney, her adopted mother who is clearly just trying to make a profit off, as well as Wuornos herself. Through footage of the trials as well as evidence obtained showing key figures in the prosecution and investigation profiting off the trial (through film rights), the documentary paints a rather unsettling portrait of Aileen’s failure to receive a fair trial.
There isn’t a question of whether Aileen Wuornos killed those men. She admitted to it. She was apprehended after crashing the car of one of the murder victims (whose body was never found). Her accomplice, Tyria Moore (who was never charged with the crime but the film hints that she profited from film rights as did several key police investigators), had belongings of the victim in her possessions. Honestly, the film doesn’t even make as much of the question of whether Aileen acted in self-defense. I would say she did for the first murder (Richard Mallory) but it’s more questionable with the others. Instead, the film focuses on how so many people ultimately profited from the tragedy of these killings as well as the tragedy of Wuornos’ life period. The adopted “mother” gets a $2500 payment to set up an interview, then tries to stop the interview from happening, and then claims she never got her money in the first place (even though there’s film footage of it happening). You see the deluge of book deals and movie deals and TV deals and the complacency of a system that allows that to happen.
A lot of people seem to take umbrage with the very low quality of the film’s video and that the movie I would imagine started out as an attempt to document the facts of Aileen Wuornos. As you can clearly see throughout the film though, his attempts to do that failed. Nick Broomfield was taken advantage of by Arlene Pralle and Wuornos’ attorney, Steve Glazer, and impeded by law enforcement and the correctional system when they realized he wasn’t painting them in a positive light. So, instead, the film became about the exploitation of Aileen Wuornos by everyone around her as well as her complete inability to receive a fair trial. Since the facts of the case are so well known, taking this approach which instead examines some of the murkier and and less equitable sides of our nation’s legal system makes the film far more interesting in the end than a simple retreading of the facts.
With a history of constant sexual abuse from a young age as well as a history of prostitution from age 11 (just typing that makes me want to cry), Aileen Wuornos lived a troubled and tragic life beyond that which most of us could possibly even begin to imagine. Do I think that she was a danger to society? Yes. She was obviously unhinged in one way or another and likely killed at least one or two of those men not in self-defense (but she likely believed it to be so). Watching the interviews towards the end of her life (which this film doesn’t get to see) clearly shows that. However, she needed mental help. She didn’t need the electric chair (nor, ultimately, what she actually received, lethal injection). Her trial was a travesty of justice, and the people who were supposed to care for her the most just used and exploited her like everyone else in her life. Nick Broomfield captures the tragedy of her victimhood.
Final Score: A-