First Look: The only familiarity I had with Aileen Wuornos was from the 2003 film Monster. Much of the conversation at the time had to do with the transformation of Charlize Theron, who played Wuornos in that film with a fury that not only earned her an Oscar but is an uncanny representation of the real Wuornos at her most ferocious. It was a brave performance, but not for reasons of “de-glamorization”; Theron successfully captured the anger and intensity of the woman at the center of Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of Serial Killer in a way that allows viewers to gain an understanding of (if not empathize with) the U.S.’s first known female serial killer.
Wuornos took issue with that label, though. She emphatically believed that each of the seven men she killed were in self-defense and not premeditated acts of murder, which she attributes to being the modus operandi of traditional serial killers. In spite of a harrowing account of the alleged rape and abuse she suffered at the hands of her first victim, she is sentenced to death for the first murder. She continues to receive a death sentence with each new trial for her six other victims, as witnessed through courtroom footage that also shows Wuornos verbally and viciously bemoaning a justice system that, rather than acknowledge her pleas of self-defense, are instead using her either for financial gain or to push political agendas. Bloomfield’s documentary asserts that, on this latter point, Wuornos may have been on to something.
As if Wuornos weren’t already a dynamic subject herself, we are introduced to an additional cast of personalities who were involved in the early stages of her trials. When not focused on Wuornos, Bloomfield spends much of his time with her adopted “step-mother” and her lawyer (Arlene Pralle and Steve Glazer, respectively). Pralle is a Christian who believes she was led to Wuornos to help her atone for her sins, while Glazer appears only to be interested in whatever monetary gain he can derive from his involvement with the case. In fact, much of the film revolves around Bloomfield’s attempts to interview Wuornos directly, which Pralle and Glazer assure they can make happen if Bloomfield forks over $25,000. These negotiations are interspersed with commentary and questions regarding the handling of the case by the Florida police department, including their collaboration with Wuornos’s ex-lover Tyria Moore, whose possible involvement in the murders goes unacknowledged.
Despite an intriguing subject, I’m kind of surprised the movie is included in 1001 Movies. It’s engrossing, for sure, but there are stronger documentaries out there, and it doesn’t appear to have influenced any particular trend within the genre (unlike others I have seen from the list thus far). Unsurprisingly, The Selling of a Serial Killer raises more questions than it answers. In attempting to shed a brighter light on Wuornos herself, Bloomfield instead uncovered a trial that became a three-ring circus fueled by greed, with just about every participant guilty of something. Though we get glimpses of what may have influenced her evolution from petty criminal to killer, Wuornos herself is still largely a mystery when the credits roll; the movie works better as an examination of Wuornos as celebrity, one that fascinates outside viewers while those close to her attempt to use it for personal gain.
Why It’s Essential — In attempting to examine a notorious criminal, the movie instead uncovers the greed inherent in everyday people.
Why You’ll Want to Skip It — If you’re looking for a more complete representation of Wuornos herself. Or, you can look to Bloomfield’s follow-up 11 years later, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, which may provide a fuller picture (though I myself have not seen it).
Michael’s Ranking — 7/10