Portraits of a Serial Killer

The life and death of Aileen Wuornos.

Art's weaker imitation of life
Art’s weaker imitation of life

In the last year, there has been a gratifying switcheroo at the movies: The documentaries have not just been more nuanced than their fictional counterparts; they’ve been far more entertaining. Has there been a thriller more nerve-jangling than Spellbound, a tragedy more resonant than Bus 174, a portrait of injustice more tantalizingly ambiguous than Capturing the Friedmans, a war film more far-reaching than The Fog of War? In the next month, filmgoers (and serial-killer fetishists) have an opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison of a fictional and nonfictional take on the life of the manifestly delusional Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was executed last autumn after a panel of Jeb Bush-primed shrinks found her to be of sound mind. In Monster (Newmarket Films), Charlize Theron, the former South African model, pulls off—with the help of the make-up artist Toni G.—a miraculous transformation. But it’s Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill’s documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (Lantern Lane Entertainment, opening on Jan. 9) that illuminates Wuornos’ tragedy and eats into your mind.

Apart from Theron and Christina Ricci as her lover, there’s nothing in Monster that rises above the level of doggedly well-meaning, although the film is worth seeing for the acting and as a sort of palate-teaser for Broomfield and Churchill’s documentary. In the ham-handed opening, Wuornos recounts her girlish dreams of becoming the next Marilyn Monroe while the audience observes the cruel reality: transparently disgusted boys getting blow jobs and then hurrying off for fear of the association. Next, the mousy and inexperienced lesbian Selby (Ricci) sits in a gay bar and watches Wuornos, now a roadside hooker, stride in and order a beer, which the bartender doubts she can afford. Ricci’s pop-eyes pop even further out of her head—and so will yours.

You’ll spend the first part of Monster just searching for Theron under all that make-up. Although some of her features are bare, her skin has been lightly speckled (to simulate the ravages of the Florida sun on Wuornos’ whitish Michigan complexion *), her eyebrows plucked, her cheeks affixed with jowls, and her mouth with choppers that recall a Filipino vampire movie. Surveying herself in a gas-station bathroom mirror, she gives herself a sexy smile reminiscent of a pig’s head in a butcher’s window, throws back her dirty blond hair, and says, “Ya look good. Yeah.” It’s moments like that when she seems more like Jon Voight’s daughter than Angelina Jolie—or maybe the spawn of Barbara Stanwyck and Michael Richards’ Kramer. Theron gained about 20 pounds and clearly relishes that big new butt and those thunder thighs. It’s a prodigious impersonation.

Some critics have expressed amazement that Theron can act at all, as if Cindy Crawford had just pulled off Medea. But she has always been a good actress. She was hilarious as a glassy blond supermodel—what Wuornos wanted to be—in Woody Allen’s Celebrity (1998), and she grew convincingly unhinged (opposite an especially monotonic Keanu Reeves) in Devil’s Advocate (1997). In The Astronaut’s Wife (1999), she did a Rosemary’s Baby number as well as Mia Farrow—although the movie itself didn’t deliver. Her acting in Monster is much showier than usual, but she gets inside Wuornos’ bizarre hopefulness in a way that makes you pull for her—even though you know (and are impatient for, because the narrative is so dawdling) what’s coming.

The first-time writer-director Patty Jenkins accepts its protagonist’s initial testimony and the view of Broomfield and Churchill: that Wuornos was a straightforward prostitute until a known sex criminal picked her up, assaulted and sodomized her, and was poised to kill her when she managed to get hold of a gun and blow him away. Although Monster’s Aileen could plead self-defense, she hides the body, steals the dead man’s car and money, and decides to abandon prostitution. But “real” jobs don’t come her way (she sets her sights too high, and she’s not the most attractive candidate for, say, a law office), so she returns to hooking to earn money for herself and Selby, who says she’s “starving” and longs to spend time with other lesbians. First by instinct, then by design, Wuornos projects all her rage onto a series of harmless johns who pick her up along the highway: She taunts them, accuses them of wanting to rape her, then shoots them again and again in an escalating fury. She becomes an avenging angel—like the raped protagonist of the female vigilante picture Ms. 45 (1981), only here the males are much less threatening. (The nicest is Scott Wilson, one of the killers in the film In Cold Blood [1967].)

Monster and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer are in complete accord in their stories—in their sympathy for their protagonist and their horror at her crimes. (Broomfield shared his footage with the filmmakers of Monster, saying he owed it to Wuornos to see her story told correctly.) But Monster is structured like a dreary exploitation movie, with Wuornos’ murders accompanied by her paranoid jabberings and horror-flick music. There’s nothing to do except watch her sink further and further into depravity and alcoholism, and to watch Ricci’s Selby (the character is slightly fictionalized for legal reasons) become increasingly weirded-out and detached. You don’t feel the weight of Wuornos’ past: It’s constantly alluded to but never really dramatized. And Selby is a cipher. Monster has nowhere to go beyond Wuornos’ arrest and (telescoped) conviction. The movie ends with a shrug, a cynical bit of narration, a crawl that gives you the date of Wuornos’ execution.

That’s really the starting point for Broomfield and Churchill. Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer begins with Broomfield traveling to Florida to testify at Wuornos’ appeal of her death sentence—on the grounds that her original lawyer was (to put it euphemistically) incompetent. That lawyer isn’t especially happy to see Broomfield, whose 1992 Wuornos documentary Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer is Exhibit A in her new lawyer’s case. (The microphone catches the stream of obscenities he hisses into Broomfield’s ear while keeping a smiling face for the camera.)

In his last film on Wuornos, Broomfield’s focus was Hollywood’s attempt to snare the rights to the story of “America’s first female serial killer”—and the impact of all that money on Wuornos’ lawyer and the cops who arrested her. This time, he goes back to her Michigan * hometown and puts names and faces to the events that are clumsily recounted in Monster: the mother who, after a difficult and protracted birth, abandoned the baby to her abusive father (Wuornos’ grandfather) and now expresses dismay at how cruelly the girl was treated; the men who had sex with her and shunned her; and the friends who can’t quite believe how little they did when Wuornos was thrown out of her house at age 13, after giving birth, and forced to live in the woods in the middle of winter. (The only time she had shelter was when she was turning tricks.)

The emotional core of Aileen, of course, is the two interviews with Wuornos, who is far less physically grotesque—but far more insane—than the character portrayed by Theron. At first, her manner with Broomfield is easy—he’s an old friend. Then she grows frustrated with him: He’s skeptical when she turns on her new lawyers and announces that none of her killings were in self-defense, that she just wants to die as quickly as possible. You scan her face for a sign of the truth, but all you see is agony. The police knew who she was after the first killing, she says—she left clues all over. But they let her kill and kill because they knew she’d be a celebrity when she was caught, and they wanted all that Hollywood money. She says the guards are still conspiring with Hollywood—as well as sending malignant beams through her television and telephone. 

Wuornos wants to die—and I can’t say that, given both the level of her pain and the magnitude of her crimes, the prospect seemed that terrible to me. I almost wanted to see her put out of her misery. But Aileen makes a couple of things clear. The first is that the state of Florida (and its re-election-seeking governor) has no interest in sparing her, despite the fact that she’s barking mad. The second is that Hollywood looms over the second part of Wuornos’ story like the shadow of a giant vampire bat. All things considered, it might be a miracle that Monster is as good at it is.

Correction, Dec. 30, 2003: The original version of this review implied that Wournos was from Minnesota, when in reality she was born in Michigan. Return to the corrected sentence.