It’s about time somebody made a documentary about Nick Broomfield. The British filmmaker is a compelling storyteller, but he’s also a meta-documentarian of sorts. All of his works are really about how he made them, not the subjects themselves.
His self-importance and guerilla style—it’s just him and cinematographer Joan Churchill filming everything—are infuriating to purists, and he’s difficult to appreciate until you accept it: Like a thin-lipped, hairy-necked Norma Desmond, Broomfield is always the star of his show. Once you realize you’re not watching a documentary, but a movie about the exploits of a self-important Englishman who’s fascinated by the bottomless cornucopia of American weirdness, Broomfield’s vibe is much easier to stomach and enjoy.
In addition to works about Heidi Fleiss, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, and Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, Broomfield has made two films about serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was executed in 2002 for murdering seven men in Florida. His first, released in 1992, primarily was his evisceration of several corrupt cops who worked on movie deals during the trial and one comically incompetent lawyer who did almost nothing to prevent Wuornos from being sent to death row.
The sequel, if that’s the appropriate term, focuses on the final days of Wuornos’ life. The film also scours her past, illuminating in graphic detail the inhumanity and horrors of Wuornos’ upbringing in suburban Detroit. She was beaten by relatives and molested by strangers. She was raped repeatedly. She was a prostitute of sorts by 9, trading favors for cigarettes. She had a baby at 13—probably fathered by a known pedophile—and spent the next two years living in the woods in the brutal Michigan cold when her grandfather kicked her out of the house. She eventually moved to Florida, hooking on the interstate and repeatedly failing to go straight, until she started killing people.
Broomfield’s new documentary features several interviews with Wuornos, who picked him as a sort of confessor in the final months of her life. Broomfield’s interviews largely consist of winding up Wuornos and letting her talk—and when she does, it’s fairly obvious that she’s quite mad. She changes her story several times, backtracking on her self-defense plea and then, when she thinks the camera is off, claiming she’s changing her story only because she wants to die so nobody can make any more money off her plight. Later, she outlines her belief that the prison guards are controlling her thoughts and crushing her head with radio waves. A few hours earlier, she had passed muster with three prison psychiatrists who certified her sane enough to kill.
Wuornos’ story has been told in more detail than most of us will ever need. Charlize Theron, who won an Oscar for playing Wuornos in last year’s Monster, felt as much empathy for Wuornos as Broomfield does. Their films travel in completely different directions to reach the same conclusion: Wuornos was not born evil, and her execution was just one last tragedy in a horrific life. Broomfield really has nothing new to say in his new film, but he follows through on the project he began 12 years earlier, capturing every last heartbreaking detail.
Broomfield fervently opposes the death penalty, and makes no effort to hide it. His officious voiceovers frequently skewer the police and politicians who promote capital punishment. His blatant advocacy and self-promotion isn’t always charming, but it usually commands our interest. In other words, it’s easy to dislike Broomfield, but it’s also possible to ignore him long enough to enjoy his films.
He’s also a master of small details told in a by-the-way fashion, and the film contains dozens of fascinating asides. Wuornos only got $20 for her final meal, so she ordered Kentucky Fried Chicken and french fries; she asked for a Natalie Merchant song to be played at her wake. Broomfield fancies himself in the middle of an American tragedy, and for all his bluster, he’s undoubtedly correct.
AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER, ***, Documentary, Directed by Nick Broomfield