‘No Man of God’: Dueling With the Psyche of Ted Bundy
Something about Ted Bundy refuses to let the infamous serial killer fade away from our public consciousness. It might have something to do with the deceptive ordinariness of his image. Take away the fact that he raped and killed 30 women, although authorities suspect the number is much higher, and old photos of Bundy make him look like any average white American male in the ‘70s. It’s a horrifying thought how real threats are not so easy to spot. “No Man of God,” a meticulously directed psychological film, is a cinematic duel with Ted Bundy. Director Amber Sealey seems tired of the exploitative nature of most films about serial murder. She takes Bundy as seriously as an FBI profiler, breaking down the monster’s components. Those components are brought to skin-crawling life in a rather stunning performance by Luke Kirby as Bundy.
The narrative is particular in its setting. It is 1985 and with the support of President Reagan, the FBI has launched the National Center for Analysis of Violent Crime. Agents in this department interview and study incarcerated killers in order to build profiles and better understand their crimes. Agent Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) volunteers to fly down to Florida and sit down with Ted Bundy, who awaits execution. It sounds like a hard proposition since Bundy is infamously reluctant to speak with any feds. He still hasn’t officially confessed to having murdered his victims. If Hagmaier can get him to talk, maybe a few cases can even finally be closed. At first Bundy is suspicious of Hagmaier’s motives, but the agent is shrewd and knows how to appear comfortable, as well as capable of stroking Bundy’s ego. An exchange ensues that begins to give Hagmaier a tour of Bundy’s trembling psyche and an unsettling reflection on the fine line between a psychopath and everyone else.
“No Man of God” is the latest in a slew of Ted Bundy films and shows. Some have been admirable in-depth chronicles of the killer, like Joe Berlinger’s docuseries “The Ted Bundy Tapes” and his underrated drama “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” told from the perspective of Bundy’s girlfriends. While those offered detached, morbidly fascinating takes on Bundy, Sealy and screenwriter Kit Lesser take on the challenge of asking via drama, who is this man? They use Hagmaier’s transcripts and other sources to create a scenario that perfectly captures that famous quote by Nietzsche, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” It all begins friendly enough with Hagmaier almost talking like a school counselor to Bundy, who we sense instantly sniffs out the agent’s more reserved, conservative manner. Both even bond over having daughters. The dark power in Kirby’s performance is in how he makes Bundy charismatic and charming in the way some well-educated, Ivy League suburbanite might operate. Then a particular laugh, subtle twitch of the eye, or nonchalant, predatory glare hints at the horror and truth. “It’s really hard to pin down what’s going on inside of anybody, but especially inside of a psychopath. There’s a kind of cracked mirror feeling when you deal with them. You never really know if what they are presenting is authentic or facsimile. Clearly, just in tracking his history, you get a lot to serve himself, a lot to share responsibility, a lot to try and deviate from the truth,” Luke Kirby told Entertainment Voice about the role.
Seduction is what begins to slowly ensue, but a seduction of the mind. What Hagmaier didn’t sign on for when he walks into that Florida prison is the way Bundy challenges him to consider his own, base male impulses. Elijah Wood disappears in this role as a disciplined, well-groomed Bureau operator who becomes slowly, emotionally assaulted by his own self-reflection. As a woman director, Sealey comprehends better than any male director the misogyny at the core of a killer and rapist like Bundy. The convict leans in on the agent, almost daring him to admit to anything they might have in common. In one, great and unnerving shot, Hagmaier steps out into a hallway and an attractive court worker walks by, straight at us, and of course he looks. Men like Bundy don’t just look. They go further in a toxic haze of narcissism, fantasy and violence. As #MeToo has been reminding us, it’s a fine line many powerful men have crossed, maybe not into murder, but certainly rape, fueled by a sense of power. Sealey’s directing is intense and hypnotic, confining the “action” to the rooms and hallways of the prison, with cinematography by Karina Silva that refuses to be static. The camera has energy along with the dialogues, capturing the claustrophobia and manic emotions at play here.
The performances by Kirby and Wood are so good they nearly overshadow the rest of the strong cast. Aleksa Palladino is firm and committed as Carolyn Lieberman, Bundy’s final defense attorney who tries desperately to get his execution delayed when it finally begins to get moving in 1989. She admits to Hagmaier she hates her client for what he is, but doesn’t everyone deserve to try and fight off their execution? Sealey lets us have few glimpses of the outside world, where Bundy has been turned into a media circus figure, a still-baffling, disturbing trend in that era of famous serial killers. The outside world sometimes comes into the prison in farcical ways, like Christian psychologist James Dobson (Christian Clemenson) cynically barging in to get a last interview with Bundy to promote his own, religious agenda. It should come as no surprise that years later, Dobson would be a firm Trump disciple. Robert Patrick as a more standard, but efficient role as Hagmaier’s supportive superior, who just wants Bundy’s confession and hopefully answers to remaining, unsolved cases.
“No Man of God” ends in reflection and a final howl of pain from Bundy that raises little sympathy, only the tragic sense of how meaninglessly terrible this man’s story became. He deserves his infamy and our scorn, but Sealey as a filmmaker makes the daring proposition that we shouldn’t easily dismiss such a diseased mind. The whole point of the FBI’s profiling program was to know what to look out for, and how to efficiently be prepared for the predators to come. Hagmaier’s journey is more riveting and disturbing than a cheap action movie. We become just as disturbed with him, because Bundy had no fangs or evil powers. He was a mere person, pathetic and wanting. If he hadn’t descended into the hellish path that became his life, he could have easily been your neighbor. Kirby also reflected on this while playing Bundy. “There’s a kind of way it reflects back on us. I do think there’s a habit that we all share where we don’t want to get caught doing something, we don’t want to share in the responsibilities of our horror, our violence, and cruelty. I think the only way to do anything in that regard is to explore what’s within us.”
“No Man of God” releases Aug. 27 on VOD and in select theaters.