Nick Broomfield has made documentaries about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, but ultimately the subject always seems the same: Nick Broomfield.
In “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer,” the director is just as ubiquitous. His smothers the film in voiceovers with his monotone British accent, and he can’t seem to stay out of the frame, asking questions and commenting on the action with his headphones constantly cradling his neck.
He’s Michael Moore with a better wardrobe but without the social crusade, having chosen to turn his camera on topics of the tabloid variety. Besides 1998’s “Kurt & Courtney” and 2002’s “Biggie and Tupac,” one of his best-known films is the 1995 TV documentary “Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam.”
“Aileen,” about serial killer Aileen Wuornos, is no exception. But this time, his presence seems relevant, if not inevitable.
Twelve years ago, Broomfield made another documentary about Wuornos, “Aileen: The Selling of a Serial Killer,” about the hitchhiking lesbian prostitute who was on death row for murdering seven of her johns in Florida.
Then in 2002, Broomfield was asked to testify at Wuornos’ final state appeal before her scheduled execution, and he brought his camera and director-cinematographer Joan Churchill along with him.
He also traveled to Wuornos’ hometown of Troy, Mich., where childhood friends recalled her early promiscuity and drug use, the abuse she suffered at her father’s hand, her pregnancy at 13 and her subsequent homelessness.
The documentary comes out around the same time as the feature film “Monster,” in which Charlize Theron plays Wuornos and Christina Ricci plays her girlfriend. Together, the films provide a bleak look at a woman whose life seemed doomed from the start.
Seeing “Aileen” now reinforces what an astonishing transformation Theron underwent. The former model looks eerily like Wuornos, with her frizzy, feathered hair, bulging brown eyes and crooked teeth. But beneath that, Theron has recreated with startling precision Wuornos’ insecure, volatile nature, which Broomfield unleashes in unsettling interviews.
In the most revelatory of these, Wuornos retracts her longtime claim that her victims had raped her, and that she’d killed them in self-defense. Now, she says, “I had pretty much had them selected that they were gonna die. ... There was no self-defense.”
But she later vacillates as to what happened to her, and in her final interview with Broomfield the day before her execution, she refuses to discuss any specifics. All she wants to talk about is the way she believes the authorities have conspired against her.
During her most paranoid rants, Wuornos claims the police suspected her after the first victim, but they let her become a serial killer because that kind of case would prove more lucrative for them when it came time to sell the book and movie rights to her story.
She also claims her mind was being controlled through radio waves while she was in prison — “Now I know what Jesus was going through,” she says — and believed that when she died, angels would take her away in a spaceship.
“I think it’s gonna be more like ‘Star Trek,”’ she says in all seriousness.
Broomfield, who himself was interviewed repeatedly after Wuornos’ October 2002 execution, has said he intended the film as a statement against the death penalty. He has said he liked and even respected things about Wuornos. But in the end it seems he’s more interested in her life and death simply because they were lurid.