There is no shortage of feature films and documentaries about the notorious serial killer Theodore “Ted” Bundy. The handsome and charismatic Bundy would eventually confess to kidnapping, raping and murdering thirty women across seven states through the mid-to-late 1970’s (the actual victim count is estimated to be higher). Hollywood’s interest in Bundy’s killings remains to this day.
There has long been an unsettling mystique surrounding Ted Bundy and when making movies about him filmmakers are forced to walk a tightrope out of fear of iconizing the twisted sociopath. Director Amber Sealey takes that challenge to heart in her new film “No Man of God”.
Working from a script by Kit Lesser, Sealey dodges the usual trappings by not concentrating on the killings themselves. Instead she puts her laser-sharp focus on Bundy’s last four years. More specifically, Sealey examines Bundy through the eyes of bright-eyed FBI agent Bill Hagmaier. Her film is inspired by authentic FBI transcripts and tape recordings of Hagmaier’s interviews with Bundy leading up to his execution in 1989.
The film’s eerie opening flashes back to the morning of January 24, 1989 as Bryant Gumbel gives his Today Show audience the news that Ted Buddy had died in the electric chair after ten years of appeals. It’s followed by a collage of images that pulls us into the film’s 1980s setting. It won’t be the only time Sealey uses flashes of from the past to great effect.
From there Sealey sits us down in 1985 where the FBI’s newly-founded Behavior Analysis Unit (BAU) assigns Bill Hagmaier, the youngest member of their five-person team, to the Ted Bundy case. Hagmaier (played by a perfectly calibrated Elijah Woods) is tasked with winning an audience with the shrewd and savvy Bundy (Luke Kirby) who sits on death row at the Florida State Prison.
The psychological motivations are some of the most intriguing elements to the story. The Bureau believes that getting into Bundy‘s head and understanding his pathology will give them an edge in apprehending other serial killers. They also hope to root out any confessions that could finally give hurting families some much-needed closure. But getting the killer to open up wouldn’t be easy. “He won’t talk to you,” laughs the prison warden. “He hates the feds.”
But Bundy surprises everyone and agrees to meet with Bill, certain he can outwit the young profiler and unearth the Bureau’s real intentions. He also has his own personal reasons. With his execution date getting closer, the crafty and confident killer needs a reprieve and he’s running out of cards to play. So maybe appearing to “help” the government can buy him some time.
And that sets up the bulk of this true-crime two-hander that follows the pair of men as they meet over the course of four years. We watch as their cat-and-mouse game yields to a mutual trust and eventually an uncomfortable camaraderie. Most of their scenes are just the two of them in a small prison room. But the magnetic script combined with Sealey’s terrific sense of pacing and trust in her actors leave us captivated and locked into every exchange.
The film also benefits from its gripping female perspective that comes through via several gutsy and powerful choices. My favorite may be when the increasingly desperate Bundy grants an interview with Christian psychologist and anti-pornography crusader James Dobson (Christian Clemenson). As the two agenda-driven men prattle, Sealey’s camera hones in on a young woman standing in the background. The shot lingers on her, slowly pulling us closer. As she listens to the words of a monster her expression speaks volumes. She knows who he is. She knows what he has done. She knows it could have been her.
I can’t end the review without talking more about Kirby. He’s certainly not the first actor to portray Ted Bundy (there was Mark Harmon, Cary Elwes and Zac Efron to name a few). But none have captured Bundy’s sinister calm and unnerving vanity quite like Kirby. His performance is made all the more potent by his chilling physical likeness both in appearance and in mannerisms. It also comes through in the tone of his voice and in his handling of the dialogue. Meanwhile Sealey and cinematographer Karina Silva shoot him in a way that adds to the unease. It’s a remarkable portrayal that’s both illuminating and terrifying.
“No Man of God” may not offer much new to those who are already well-versed in Ted Bundy’s story. But the film’s focus on a particular point late in his life allows us a unique look at the smug calculated murderer, always driven by his own selfish lusts, coming face-to-face with his own mortality. And the story is just as much about Bill Hagmaier and what his encounter with Ted Bundy brought out in him. It’s these kinds of differences that make the movie stand out from all the other Bundy treatments. “No Man of God” is now showing in select theaters and on VOD.