“Press record. Let’s get this party started.”
In this age of film Twitter discourse, one of the few agreed upon takes is that the world doesn’t need any more Ted Bundy films. There’s definitely some truth to this thought since one of America’s most infamous serial killers has been recreated for the screen more times than perhaps any other. Everyone from Mark Harmon to Zac Efron has donned the Bundy darkness in one grim retelling of his heinous acts after another. With every film comes claims that these works celebrate and glorify Bundy more than anything else. On this point, I don’t argue since there is undeniably a morbid fascination among certain areas of the public which allows for Bundy’s story to be re-told. Into this landscape comes director Amber Sealy’s No Man of God, the latest cinematic word on Bundy. Intimate and chilling as it is spellbinding, the film takes a different approach to the Bundy mythos by choosing to focus not on the crimes themselves, but on the level of human darkness that inspired them and the man who found himself transfixed by it all.
Based on a series of transcripts, No Man of God centers on FBI Analyst Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood), who managed to sit down with Bundy (Luke Kirby) for a series of interviews while the latter sat on death row awaiting execution. Initially sent in to get information which would lead to the discovery of unknown victims, Bill finds a strange bond forming between him and Bundy which plunges him into an emotional place he hadn’t expected.
No Man of God doesn’t talk a lot about the specifics of Bundy’s crimes. It also doesn’t go to any great lengths in order to recreate past events. What is does do is offer up an intriguing two-hander between a pair of men at seemingly opposite ends of the psychological spectrum who attempt to get to the heart of the other. The bulk of the film is comprised of a series of cat and mouse-like scenes in which both men take turns baiting each other for vastly different reasons. For Bill, it’s the aim of scoring the confession that has eluded every member of law enforcement who went after Bundy. For Bundy, it’s a new mind to probe and explore…and challenge. Side characters come and go, but No Man of God is a true chamber piece that shows its strengths by focusing on the two complex men. The ways the film examines both characters is made fascinating by the theories that each one carries with them til the end. Bundy clings to the notion that he is not the psychologically twisted individual he’s been made out to be and that in fact anyone is capable of being Ted Bundy, including Bill. Bundy’s theory finds its way into Bill’s mind to such a degree that he finds himself questioning the man he is and asking if he really could be a person prone to such darkness.
Based on the description of the plot, No Man of God sounds like it wouldn’t lend itself to too many moments of visual greatness. It’s true that much of the film feels like a play, with the majority of scenes taking place in a single prison interview room. While it does have that intimate feel of a stage production, Sealy has made sure her film remains an exciting visual experience as well. The movie’s editing is some of the most creative of the year with the way the camera chooses to cut between the two men, capturing them at various angles and revealing a different aspect of each one with every subsequent shot. The sound design also plays a huge role in giving the small space Bundy and Bill share such a lifeforce, making it feel almost like a world of its own with no one but the two of them existing there. The most noticeable visual touch is also the most telling. Throughout the 80s-set film we see Bill flashing to images of young women (reminiscent of the ones Bundy killed) in the throes of daily life intercut with his interview sessions. Meanwhile, outside the room and in Bill’s own life we see more women dressed in 70s attire, giving a symbolic nod to several of Bundy’s victims while seeing how far Bundy has reached inside Bill’s head.
The film benefits from a some great supporting work by the likes of Robert Patrick, W. Earl Brown and especially Aleksa Palladino, who is a true force of nature in her scenes as Bundy’s attorney. But No Man of God owes much of its compelling quality to its two lead actors. With numerous characterizations around, Kirby has managed to make Bundy his own. His voice and mannerisms echo the man himself, while allowing the actor the kind of creative freedom an artist needs to flourish. Wood, on the other hand, turns in another highly accomplished performance that takes Bill from a man who prides himself on his level of faith and control to a truly vulnerable place. Wood’s performance, particularly in the film’s final 20 minutes, are some of his best.
By the time No Man of God had ended, I couldn’t help but think about that famous line from The Shadow: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” It’s certainly an interesting idea to build off of, which this film does in ways that make it far more involving and electric than I had anticipated. My hope is that people look at this as a film of how one man journeyed into the darkness and how it altered his psyche forever. There’s a moment in the final act when Bundy takes Bill’s hands and instructs him to close his eyes as he takes him through one of his monstrous crimes. Seeing Bill embark on that journey and watching how it forever changes him not only gives an invaluable look into the mental toll that’s taken on criminal profilers, but also shows the power of the human connection, however unexpected and unorthodox it may be. No Man of God isn’t the ultimate word on Ted Bundy and I doubt it will be the last. But for a variety of reasons that are too difficult to articulate, it’s a story that deserves to be told.