Ted Bundy through a lens, again
Dir: Amber Sealey. US. 2021. 100 mins.
Seeking to de-emphasise the salaciousness that usually accompanies serial killer sagas, No Man Of God draws from actual transcripts between FBI agent Bill Hagmaier and death row inmate Ted Bundy to produce a thought-provoking but not entirely successful character study. Elijah Wood and Luke Kirby ably play these two seemingly very different men, who form an unlikely bond, while director Amber Sealey sharply critiques our obsession with mass murderers by never letting us forget the women Bundy slaughtered. But the stripped-down approach can’t transcend what’s glaringly familiar about this look into the abyss.
No Man Of God’s dim view of society’s romanticising of serial killers is commendable but far from fresh
The film comes soon after two 2019 projects directed by Joe Berlinger which addressed Bundy’s legacy: the documentary Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and the Zac Efron feature Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile. True-crime docuseries are all the rage on streaming services, so there may be a built-in audience for No Man Of God, although it’s notable that Sealey eschews the tawdry recreations that are usually de rigueur for such programmes. Premiering at Tribeca, this muted indie could provoke social-media reactions but could struggle to make much of a commercial splash.
Spanning the mid-to-late 1980s, No Man Of God follows Hagmaier (Wood) as he meets Bundy (Kirby) in prison, hoping to get him to open up about why he raped and killed women across the US during the 1970s. Hagmaier uses the then-novel new FBI technique known as ’profiling’, which seeks to understand the mind of a violent offender in order to know how to catch similar criminals. Bundy has long resisted talking to authorities, but there’s something about this soft-spoken, religious man that intrigues him, setting in motion years of conversation between the two.
Sealey (No Light And No Land Anywhere) includes an opening title card which indicates the film “is inspired by FBI transcripts, meetings, and the recollections of Bill Hagmaier”. And, indeed, there is a forensic quality to what follows, focusing on Hagmaier and Bundy’s plainspoken interactions. Hagmaier wants this serial killer to confess to the other murders the Bureau believes he committed so that the victims’ families can find closure, while Bundy tries to convince this lawman that, really, they’re not so different to each other. In fact, Bundy insists that many people have the same dark thoughts as he does.
Although the God-fearing Hagmaier rejects that thesis, No Man Of God subtly builds Bundy’s case for him. At first, it seems almost incidental, but eventually we notice a pattern in which Sealey introduces random, nameless peripheral female characters who observe the central action, never speaking a word but looking on intently, often with pained expressions. It’s the film’s most incisive commentary as Sealey peppers her nearly all-male ensemble with these silent solitary onlookers who serve as the story’s moral compass and reminder of Bundy’s victims. The more Hagmaier gets sucked into Bundy’s crimes, the more this chorus of despondent women fills him with guilt. He’s not a serial killer like Bundy, but their shaming glances make him wonder if he’s in some ways complicit by being fascinated by Bundy’s motives.
Unfortunately, that shrewd visual conceit proves to be more arresting than the budding connection between the two men. Both actors bring intelligence and nuance, ensuring that their characters don’t become crime-thriller stereotypes. Kit Lesser’s screenplay suggests that their bond was formed largely through mutual respect — Hagmaier treated Bundy like a human being, while Bundy appreciated Hagmaier’s lack of arrogance — and Wood and Kirby develop a dynamic but organic back-and-forth rapport. Still, the notion of a lawman seeing something of himself in a criminal is hardly revelatory, and Hagmaier’s growing obsession with Bundy feels overheated and contrived.
Likewise, No Man Of God’s dim view of society’s romanticising of serial killers is commendable but far from fresh. And as the film inches closer to Bundy’s inevitable execution — he was given the electric chair in 1989 at the age of 42 — the despairing examination of the death penalty recalls Dead Man Walking without comparable insight or emotional impact. Kirby intentionally plays Bundy without much charm — quite the opposite of Efron’s portrayal in Extremely Wicked, in which we were invited to be seduced by this handsome man who captured the nation’s imagination — but even here No Man Of God doesn’t seem to be offering much that is new. Sealey has no sympathy for this devil, but ultimately her vision isn’t bold enough.
Production company/international sales: Company X, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Kim Sherman, Daniel Noah, Lisa Whalen, Elijah Wood
Screenplay: Kit Lesser
Production design: Michael Fitzgerald
Editing: Patrick Nelson Barnes
Cinematography: Karina Silva
Music: Clarice Jensen
Main cast: Elijah Wood, Luke Kirby, Aleksa Palladino, Christian Clemenson, W. Earl Brown, Gilbert Owuor, Robert Patrick