Aileen: portrait of a serial killer

Serial killer Aileen Wuornos, executed for murder in 2002, is an unlikely celebrity. Yet she's the main character of the current "Monster," starring Charlize Theron in a daring performance - putting on prosthetic teeth and added weight as did Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull" two decades ago - that could well garner an Oscar nod for her.

In preparing that movie, Ms. Theron and "Monster" director Patty Jenkins reportedly honed their conception of Ms. Wuornos's appearance and personality by watching outtakes from an intelligent new documentary, opening in theaters this week. "Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer" touches on many aspects of Wuornos's experience, including her childhood in an abusive home, her years as a young runaway and a roadside prostitute, and her arrest on charges of murdering seven of the men who picked her up.

Directed by British documentary specialist Nick Broomfield, the film is a follow-up to his 1992 film "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer," which showed how various people tried to capitalize on Wuornos's notoriety during her time on death row. Among them were her lawyer, Florida police officers, and an evangelical Christian woman who adopted Wuornos and converted her.

Mr. Broomfield's new "Aileen" picture also uses Wuornos's harrowing career as a gateway to larger issues. It explores the relationship between filmmaker and subject, showing how excerpts from his earlier film about her were shown as evidence in court, and how Broomfield's last interview with her was arranged at her request. It also raises doubt about Wuornos's sanity shortly before her execution, as she complains to the camera that her mind and soul are beset by extraterrestrial influences.

And it casts yet another layer of doubt onto the alleged wisdom of capital punishment. In court, Wuornos first claimed she killed her "clients" in self-defense against their violence; then she changed her story and said she murdered the men for no justifiable reason.

Late in Broomfield's movie, at a moment when she doesn't realize her voice is being recorded, she says she did regard the killings as valid acts of self-defense but is now denying this so a prompt execution will end the intolerable death-row life she's lived for the past dozen years.

In addition to its own merits as a social and cultural document, Broomfield's film continues the welcome trend of more and more nonfiction movies finding their way to theater screens and attracting wide general audiences. Docs like this, "Capturing the Friedmans," and "Stevie" are as gripping and suspenseful as anything Hollywood is capable of turning out, and people are starting to catch on. "Aileen" is the first must-see movie of 2004.

Not rated; contains themes of violence and sex.

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