“No Man of God”: Film review
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 at the start of the Bureau’s profiling unit, established to unlock the psychology of serial murderers and rapists. At this point, the convicted killer had yet to recognize the criminal methodology he describes as his own. What makes her detailed account of targeting a victim and studying her routines so disturbing, however, is director Amber Sealey’s choice to accompany Bundy’s lyrics with cheerful family flicks of young women. and random children, oblivious to any hidden threat.
In a film that is essentially about two men sitting across a table in a prison interrogation room discussing the most horrific premeditated crimes, the fear unleashed in women is an effective motive. It registers itself in the twinkles of a disturbed gaze or eyes wide open in shock – on the faces of a prison warden’s office assistant, a member of a television production crew, or a motorist who stops next to Hagmaier’s car at a traffic light and overhears part of a Bundy recording.
No man of god
The bottom line
It’s also etched in the features of Carolyn Lieberman (Aleksa Palladino), a fictional version of the lawyer who portrayed 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 recollections of Hagmaier, the film opens with a presenter announcing Bundy’s execution in 1989 in Florida State Prison, after 10 years of exhaustive death row appeals.
The main action, however, dates back four years earlier, when the Ronald Reagan administration established the National Center for Violent Crime Analysis. Special Agent Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) was one of the first five FBI profilers to work full-time in the unit and the only one to volunteer to handle the case of Bundy, known for his hatred of the Feds and his refusal to speak. Hagmaier, a religious father who begins each day with prayer, agrees to go through Bundy’s files but asks his boss, Roger Depue (Robert Patrick), to withhold the photos of the crime scenes.
With twisty edits incorporating pretty crossfades, slow dolly sliding down the prison corridors, and excellent use of a disturbing string and an electronic score by Clarice Jensen, director Sealey confidently puts the wheels in motion to 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 made Kirby (better known as Lenny Bruce’s performance on The wonderful Mrs. Maisel) so fascinating is that it makes the viewer wonder – almost to the end – if Bundy is manipulating Hagmaier or genuinely considering him a friend after their years of regular interviews. He has a tendency to look at his interlocutor under a furrowed brow, in a way that can be interpreted as curious, evasive or arrogant. There is real subtlety and control in the degree to which vulnerability and fear creeps into its characterization towards the end, as the appeal process hits a wall and the inevitable end draws near. What is perhaps more surprising are the hints of betrayal crossing Ted’s face as Bill challenges his self-delusion by reminding him that the people asking for his execution are actually very different from him.
These people – a crowd of gladiators lurking outside the prison gates holding up signs that read “Buckle up, Bundy” or “Sit down, Ted,” and hawking T-shirts emblazoned with “Burn, Bundy, Burn!” – provide food for a contemporary contextualization that the scenario unfortunately leaves unexplored.
The serial killer phenomenon that once loomed large 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 troubled sociopath doesn’t need to spend months or years racking up double-digit kills. Comparable numbers of lives can be taken within an hour. And yet, the folks in the same demographic who are crying for Bundy to get the electric chair now seem to mostly shrug at the death toll whenever the sensitive topic of gun laws is brought up.
While Kirby’s performance is the fascinating center of the film, Wood matches it in terms of intensity. He expresses Bill’s integrity by urging Bundy to stop stalling, to confess in order to bring peace to his victim’s families and to express his remorse. There is also pathos in Hagmaier’s failure to be there for Bundy in his dying moments, thanks to the power play of the prison warden (W. Earl Brown), who is weary of Bundy’s media circus and full of resentment of Bill’s unique. ability to communicate with the killer and gain their trust. Bill’s anger at the bait and switch of a televangelist (Christian Clemenson) highlights the basic decency of the federal agent.
Wood also serves as a producer, and the only downside to his work here – which I admit could be a purely personal response – is that, like so many actors indelibly associated with a particular role, he is not always easy to accept Frodo Baggins as an ambitious FBI agent with a sharp analytical mind and a complex moral conscience who would lead the unit. Wood’s face has an inherent innocence that, to a certain extent, flies in the face of its cast here, although his performance is otherwise compelling. It’s not the actor’s fault that he hasn’t aged and still looks like the high school nerd in Faculty.
Caveats aside, it remains a gripping drama, focusing not on the gruesome details of Bundy’s 30 or more murders of young women and children, but on his state of mind over the past few years when his life was in limbo. In the series of cleverly cut interrogation scenes with investigators from various states towards the end, editor Patrick Nelson Barnes points out the disturbing truth that even then the names of the victims tended to be forgotten, while that of the man who murdered and defiled them live.
Does this add any major information to the canon of films already available – most recently the Zac Efron vehicle? Extremely mean, incredibly evil and vile, and the documentary series Netflix Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, both directed by Joe Berlinger – dealing with this character who continues to weigh heavily in the annals of infamy of true American crime more than three decades after his death? It is debatable. But either way, it’s a frightening psychological investigation that holds your attention for the duration.