I saw Patty Jenkin's "Monster" but did not see British documentarian Nick Broomfield's 1992 work "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer" before I watched his 2003 postscript "Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer." All of this happened after Aileen Wuornos was executed in Florida in 2002 for killing seven men who picked her up as a prostitute during the 1980s (one of who was trying to save her). Even without seeing "The Selling of Serial Killer" it is clear that the 1992 documentary was about how Wournos' flaky lawyer, the born again Christian who "adopted" her, and the cops who worked her case were all trying to make money off of the "America's first female serial killer" (the title taken from the "Guiness Book of World Records" is hyperbole, but what else is new). At the start of "Aileen" we learn that a whole bunch of cops resigned, which would seem to vindicate Bloomfield's position.
The original documentary matters when you watch "Aileen" because in many ways this one is about Broomfield having to deal with Aileen's confessions to the murders as he stubbornly holds on to the idea that at least the first killing really was in self-defense. That is what he wants to talk about at the end while, in a profoundly ironic twist, Wuornos wants to expand on the thesis of his first documentary and talk about how the cops knew she was killing man after the first one but let her keep doing it so they could get more money for selling the story rights. The question is whether Aileen is saying whatever she can to hasten her execution or if she has indeed told the truth, but Bloomfield refuses to believe it.
Bloomfield (and his cinematographer and co-director Joan Churchill) go back to the beginning of Wuornos' story, taking us to the house and woods in which she lived in Michigan before hitch hiking to Florida and what she through would be a happier life. There is no doubt about her guilt, or her insanity for that matter, but it is also clear that her life was pretty much a complete tragedy before she started killing men. All of her victims were essentially random choices and you know that in their grief their families wanted to know "Why?" "Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer" just shows that trying to answer that question, even in part and only inadequately, is not going to provide much peace.
Broomfield is clearly against the death penalty although making a case against the practice is only a tangent in the documentary that emerges mainly when he films the final interview with Wuornos the night before her execution and she is clearly mentally ill. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that mental illness is not an impediment to the death penalty, but Wuornos' ranting and raving at the end certainly gives you pause. Broomfield's most interesting assertion against the death penalty is that states without it have lower murder rates, which may be only correlational but still something to think about. My thought on the death penalty has been that since it costs the state about a $1 million to execute someone in this country we could surely take half that money and hire more cops and do other things to decrease the murder rate, but then I have always had this stubborn pragmatic streak.
There are no easy answers here, but everybody should have known that going into this documentary. "Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer" is an indirect examination of Wournos, her murders, and the death penalty. At the end we see the place where Wournos' ashes were scattered and the credits roll as we listen to the song she picked for her "funeral," Natalie Merchant's "Carnival." Maybe there is some significant message contained in that song, but Broomfield does not stop to contemplate it as such. Instead we get to consider it on our own as just another piece in the horror show that was Aileen Wournos' life and death.