'Ted K': Film Review | Berlin 2021

TED K.
Courtesy of Ted K.

Sharlto Copley in 'Ted K'

Mesmerizing.

Sharlto Copley plays the Rocky Mountains wilderness recluse who became known to the world as the Unabomber in Tony Stone's unsettlingly intimate true crime thriller.

The underseen but arresting 2016 documentary feature Peter and the Farm is a warts-and-all portrait of a flinty Vermont loner and his volatile relationship to the land that has consumed him for more than three decades. Its director, Tony Stone, now blurs the line between nonfiction and narrative filmmaking to depict another solitary man inseparable from his natural environment in Ted K, a piercing psychological probe into the domestic terrorist known as the Unabomber. Played by Sharlto Copley in a febrile performance so wired it's almost uncomfortable to watch, Ted Kaczynski is revealed here in his own words, lifted from 25,000 pages of writing that predates his arrest in 1996.

A Star Wars-length opening info crawl fills in the background on the subject, a brilliant student who skipped grades to attend Harvard at 16, earning a PhD in mathematics and abandoning a professorship after a year to turn his back on society. With his brother David, he built a 10 x 12-foot cabin on a small parcel of land in the Rocky Mountains near Lincoln, Montana, and lived there alone without running water or electricity for 25 years.

Stone made his film on the same land where the cabin once stood, and the icy intensity of his approach is evident from the opening titles sequence. Over footage of a family of five on snowmobiles, zipping among the trees of a forest drenched in winter sun, the thunderous operatic electronica of Scottish producer Benjamin John Power, who records as Blanck Mass, plants a sinister seed of dread. The music's portentous drone tones echo everything from vintage John Carpenter to Dario Argento prog-rock favorites, Goblin — far from subtle but chillingly effective.

By the time the distant figure of Copley's Ted is glimpsed stepping out from behind a tree, the brooding note of sustained horror that defines the film has been struck. It's then reinforced in the scene that follows, as Ted smashes through a wall of the luxury lodge where the family is staying and proceeds to lay waste to the interior with an ax while the wall-mounted head of a stag looks on stoically from above. Ted then heads out to the garage to wreck the offending snowmobiles. The whole wordless opening act is certainly an attention-getter.

"Modern technology is the worst thing to ever happen to the world, and to promote its progress is nothing short of criminal," says Copley in voiceover used with sparing precision throughout. As Ted hunts or fishes for his food and harvests vegetables from his garden plot, he alternates between finding peace among nature and bristling with rage at the intrusion of low-flying jets, industry and motorcycle thrill-riders. He records these daily violations, as well as his acts of sabotage, in notebooks penned in painstaking numerical code and translated in subtitles.

"Here the noise destroys something wonderful, whereas in the city, there is nothing to destroy because one is living in a shit pile anyway," he says. If you were around before the internet age, chances are you will have wondered one time or another if so much technology and limitless information in the hands of so many is a good thing. Portrayed here from inside his head, Kaczynski is a walking illustration of that concern inflated into dangerous paranoia, exploring the fine line between genius and madness.

He anticipates the danger of machines making more and more decisions for people, eventually rendering humans incapable of making those decisions for themselves. But despite composing a 35,000-word manifesto eventually published by The Washington Post, he has no illusions about being able to stop the march of technology. Instead, he's up-front about taking revenge to make a statement, one that ended up claiming three lives and causing 22 injuries.

Mixing the Blanck Mass score with classical selections from Handel, Beethoven, Schubert and Vivaldi used in ways alternately maniacal and sardonic, the film favors observation over explication. The script by Gaddy Davis, John Rosenthal and Stone doesn't always step lightly, as in Ted K's intermittent visions of an idealized woman in the 1950s Donna Reed mold (Amber Rose Mason). But his collision of sexual frustration with misogyny is symptomatic of his dysfunctional socialization.

Stone cranks the tension as he shows the extremes of Kaczynski's actions, refining his initially crude bomb-building techniques and traveling to various cities to make his mail explosives less traceable. His targets, known as "eco-fuckers," range from the CEOs of airlines and energy companies to the owner of a small computer dealership. But the film also broadens the perspective on his mission by spending time on the factors that trigger his wrath, examining the abuse of nature caused by logging, chemicals sprayed to inhibit plant growth along power lines and dynamite blasts dropped by Exxon helicopters exploring for oil.

Copley's performance is so tightly wound he's almost comical at times. When he marches up to the counter in a Montana Phone company office demanding justice over the Lincoln corner phone booth that keeps stealing his quarters, Ted seems like just another disgruntled crank. But the score gives him glowering malevolence as he stalks away in his ill-fitting blazer. Likewise, there's something vaguely clownish about his railing at the skies when the sonic boom of air traffic shatters his harmony.

But the film's aim is never one of mockery. There's an unexpected note that borders on compassion in its assessment of a man genuinely aggrieved by the destruction of nature. The intermittent calls from that Lincoln phone booth to his mother and his once-close brother, begging them for money before finally severing all ties, reveal a man irreparably cracked, angered beyond reach.

Editors Stone, Brad Turner and Troy Herion keep the pace brisk over the two-hour duration. Their dynamic cutting instills appropriately jagged rhythms as Kaczynski gets high on news reports of his bombings (one commentator imagines him having "a psychological orgasm") while the FBI manhunt closes in. And DP Nathan Corbin, who also shot Peter and the Farm with Stone, combines images of natural splendor — including lovely glimpses of mountain lions, deer, owls and rabbits — with stark evidence of destruction.

The requiem-like heaviness of the music at times risks pushing Ted K into overwrought territory, but this remains a haunting vision of vengeful obsession carried out by a criminal who makes some provocative points.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Production companies: Heathen Films, Ten by Twelve, Hideout Pictures, in association with Verisimilitude, In Your Face Entertainment
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Drew Powell, Travis Bruyer, Amber Rose Mason
Director: Tony Stone
Screenwriters: Gaddy Davis, John Rosenthal, Tony Stone
Producers: Tony Stone, Sharlto Copley, Matt Flanders
Executive producers: Shannon Houchins, Potsy Ponciroli, Trevor O'Neil, Cameron Brodie, Tyler Brodie, Melissa Auf der Maur
Co-producers: Jake Perlin, Colin Scott, Niles Roth
Director of photography: Nathan Corbin
Production designers: Audrey Turner, Kate Lindsay
Costume designers: Kate Lindsay, Rachaell Dama
Music: Blanck Mass
Editors: Tony Stone, Brad Turner, Troy Herion
Casting: Jennifer Venditti
Sales: HanWay Films, Cinetic Media
121 minutes