Director: Amber Sealey
Writer: C. Robert Cargill (as Kit Lesser)
Cast: Elijah Wood, Luke Kirby, Robert Patrick, Aleksa Palladino
Producers: Daniel Noah, Kim Sherman, Lisa Whalen, Elijah Wood
Music: Clarice Jensen
Cinematography: Karina Silva
Editor: Patrick Nelson Barnes
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 100mins
What’s the story: FBI behavourial scientist Bill Hagmaier (Wood) is assigned to interview serial murderer Ted Bundy during Bundy’s final years on Death Row.
What’s the verdict: While not as popular with directors as Charles Manson, Ted Bundy has appeared in at least nine movies. Most of them made in the 21st century, over a decade after his execution in 1989. Intelligent, urbane and WASP-ishly attractive, it is easy to see why filmmakers are repeatedly pulled back. Here was a man who held a degree in psychology and almost gained a degree in law, yet butchered at least 30 women. Bundy was one of several serial murderers Thomas Harris used for research when writing Hannibal Lecter. American Psycho also bears Bundy’s imprint.
Inevitably, some of that pop culture fascination has seeped back into public regard for the killer. Bundy films often fall under the spell of the murderer’s myth, depicting him as an uber-villain rather than someone fuelled by misogyny and squalid power fantasies. 2002’s Bundy is an ill-advised black comedy that veers close to portraying with him as a victim. A charge that can also be levied against Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the more serious-minded 2019 Zac Efron movie.
No Man of God avoids most pitfalls of the Bundy movie. Contained within the period of 1985-89, when the killer was on Death Row in a Florida prison, it focusses on the interviews he gave FBI behavourial scientist Bill Hagmaier. The FBI was attempting to understand serial murderers’ pathologies through extensive interviewing. But, as Bundy stubbornly professed his innocence while euphemistically acknowledging his crimes, Hagmaier was also tasked with obtaining any kind of confession.
Director Sealey acknowledges the inevitable Lecter influence on any serial killer film. The prison warden runs Wood’s FBI man through Bundy’s MO of toying with interviewees before shutting down. Later, Bundy will ask Hagmaier, “What’s the worst thing you remember about your father?” But, Selby and Sinister and Doctor Strange screenwriter C. Robert Cargill (under the pseudonym Kit Lesser) are more concerned with stripping away Bundy’s mystique and examining male rage and control.
Crucial here is Luke Kirby’s performance as the killer. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to the psychopath, his portrayal creates an disquieting frisson, similar to Damon Herriman’s embodiment of Charles Manson’s mania in season 2 of Mindhunter (to which this film bears a connection).
Kirby captures Bundy’s minimal physical movements and suspicious beneath the brow looks, as seen in numerous real life videos and photographs. But the actor goes beyond mimicry. He strips back the mystique to reveal a man whose intelligence was wholly invested in destroying women and evading capture. Bundy’s hubris, vanity and self-pity are all there in Kirby’s cool dialogue delivery, but No Man of God is no accidental cheerleader for the Bundy mythos.
Wood, an actor who like Daniel Radcliffe has parlayed his franchise millions into interesting indie cinema, is well-cast as Hagmaier. Caught in a perma-stare of horror at the killer’s callousness, he becomes the audience guide through the Bundy’s insanity.
As with all serial killer movies, a question lingers over what insights this offers into its subject’s pathology. But it avoids accusations of making a ghoulish buck through its depiction of women. Hagmaier himself is viewed warily by an office assistant when word spreads he is working with Bundy. A female motorist reacts with alarm when hearing Bundy’s tips on abduction coming from a cassette player in the FBI man’s car. Expressionistic montages of home movie footage and old TV adverts depict male dominance of women as being (literally) American as apple pie. In a quietly disturbing moment towards the film’s close, Hagmaier’s son refuses to hear his dad’s request he fetch his mum to the phone so they instead can speak.
The film scores in a canny bit of misdirection about the intentions of Bundy’s lawyer, Carolyn Lieberman (Palladino, playing a composite of the murderer’s various attorneys). An interesting male-female psychology experiment could be made in how different sexes read her relationship with the men in the film.
Whether the world needs another Ted Bundy movie is open to debate. But, No Man of God is a salutary lesson in sidestepping sensation while delivering an impressive film.