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The calm, measured tones of Luke Kirby’s voice as Ted Bundy are first heard in No Man of God on a recording of one of many interviews conducted by FBI agent Bill Hagmaier in the early days of the Bureau’s profiling unit, established to unlock the psychology of serial murderers and rapists. At that point, the convicted killer had not yet acknowledged the criminal methodology he describes as his own. What makes his detailed account of targeting a victim and studying her routines so disturbing, however, is director Amber Sealey’s choice to accompany Bundy’s words with cheerful home movies of random young women and children, oblivious to any lurking menace.
In a movie that’s basically about two men sitting on opposite sides of a table in a prison interrogation room discussing the most horrific premeditated crimes, the fear triggered in women is an effective motif. It registers in the flickers of a disturbed glance or in eyes wide open in shock — on the faces of a prison warden’s office assistant, a television production crew member or a motorist who pulls up alongside Hagmaier’s car at a traffic light and overhears part of a Bundy recording.
It’s also etched into the features of Carolyn Lieberman (Aleksa Palladino), a fictionalized version of the lawyer who represented Bundy in his final appeals, not because she believed in his innocence but because she was opposed to capital punishment.
Written by C. Robert Cargill (Doctor Strange) under the pseudonym Kit Lesser, and inspired by interview transcripts, recordings and Hagmaier’s recollections, the film opens with a newscaster announcing the 1989 execution of Bundy in Florida State Prison, following 10 years of exhaustive Death Row appeals.
The main action, however, jumps back four years earlier, when the Ronald Reagan administration had established the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. Special Agent Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) was one of the first five FBI profilers to work full-time in the unit and the only one who volunteered to take on the case of Bundy, who was known for his hatred of the Feds and his refusal to speak. Hagmaier, a religious family man who begins every day in prayer, agrees to go over the Bundy files but requests that his boss, Roger Depue (Robert Patrick), withhold the crime-scene photos.
With sinuous edits incorporating some lovely dissolves, slow tracking shots gliding down the prison corridors and excellent use of a disquieting string and electronic score by Clarice Jensen, director Sealey confidently sets the wheels in motion for a psychological thriller in which the wily Bundy will cause Hagmaier to question the nature of man and what separates him from the unrepentant killer, rapist and necrophiliac sitting across from him.
What makes the performance of Kirby (best known as Lenny Bruce on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) so transfixing is that he keeps the viewer questioning — almost to the end — whether Bundy is manipulating Hagmaier or sincerely values him as a friend after their years of regular interviews. He has a tendency to look up at his interlocutor from beneath creased brows, in ways that can be read as inquisitive, evasive or cocky. There’s real subtlety and control in the degree to which vulnerability and fear creep into his characterization toward the end, as the appeals process hits a wall and the inevitable end draws closer. What’s perhaps more surprising are the hints of betrayal that play across Ted’s face as Bill challenges his self-deception by reminding him that the people calling for his execution are in fact very different from him.
Those people — an ever-present gladiatorial mob of protesters outside the prison gates waving signs that read “Buckle Up, Bundy” or “Have a Seat, Ted,” and hawking T-shirts emblazoned with “Burn, Bundy, Burn!” — provide food for contemporary contextualization that the screenplay disappointingly leaves unexplored.
The phenomenon of the serial murderer that once occupied significant space in the dark recesses of the American psyche has since been largely replaced by the almost weekly occurrence of the mass shooting. Military grade weapons now mean that a disturbed sociopath doesn’t need to spend months or years racking up double-digit kills. Comparable numbers of lives can be taken in the space of an hour. And yet, people from the same demographic screaming for Bundy to get the electric chair now mostly seem to shrug at the death toll whenever the sticky subject of gun laws comes up.
While Kirby’s performance is the mesmerizing center of the film, Wood matches him in terms of intensity. He conveys Bill’s integrity as he urges Bundy to stop stalling, to confess in order to bring peace to his victim’s families and to express remorse. There’s also pathos in Hagmaier’s failure to be able to be there for Bundy in his final moments, thanks to the power play of the prison warden (W. Earl Brown), who is weary of the Bundy media circus, and churlishly resentful of Bill’s unique ability to communicate with the killer and gain his trust. Bill’s anger at the bait-and-switch of a televangelist (Christian Clemenson) shines further light on the Federal agent’s fundamental decency.
Wood also serves as a producer, and the only drawback with his work here — which I’ll admit might be a purely personal response — is that like so many actors indelibly associated with one particular role, it’s not always easy to accept Frodo Baggins as an ambitious FBI agent with a sharp analytical mind and a complex moral conscience who would go on to head the unit. Wood’s face has an inherent innocence that to some degree works against his casting here, though his performance is otherwise persuasive. It’s not the actor’s fault if he hasn’t aged, and still looks like the high school nerd in The Faculty.
Reservations aside, this remains an engrossing drama, focusing not on the gruesome details of the 30 or more murders of young women and children committed by Bundy but on his state of mind during those final years when his life was in limbo. In the smartly cut series of interrogation scenes with various states’ investigators near the end, editor Patrick Nelson Barnes emphasizes the disturbing truth that even at the time, the names of the victims tended to be forgotten, while that of the man who murdered and defiled them lives on.
Does it add major insights to the canon of films already out there — most recently the Zac Efron vehicle Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, and the Netflix documentary series Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, both directed by Joe Berlinger — dealing with this figure who continues to loom large in the annals of American true-crime infamy more than three decades after his death? That’s debatable. But either way, it’s a chilling psychological inquiry that holds your attention for the duration.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)
Production companies: Company X
Distribution: RLJE Films
Cast: Elijah Wood, Luke Kirby, Aleksa Palladino, Robert Patrick, Christian Clemenson, W. Earl Brown, Gilbert Owuor
Director: Amber Sealey
Screenwriter: Kit Lesser
Producers: Kim Sherman, Daniel Noah, Lisa Whelan, Elijah Wood
Executive producers: Stacy Jorgensen, Elisa Lleras, Mark Ward, Jonas Katzenstein, Maximilian Leo, Allison Baver, Lauren Magura, Luke Watson
Director of photography: Karina Silva
Production designer: Michael Fitzgerald
Costume designer: Emily Batson
Music: Clarice Jensen
Editor: Patrick Nelson Barnes
Casting: Danielle Aufiero, Amber Horn
Sales: XYZ Films
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