Historically, making movies about real-life serial killers has been problematic, to say the least. Most of them were exercises in exploitation that went straight to video, such as the films about Dahmer or Bundy. The only one of note was 1986’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (based on the murderous rampage of Henry Lee Lucas), which was so raw and disturbing it was slapped with an NC-17 rating. Hollywood is much more comfortable with fictionalized maniacs like Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs or John Doe from Seven than real-life ones, and probably for good reason. Do we really want to humanize these monsters for a mass audience? What would be the point? Amber Sealey’s new movie about Ted Bundy attempts to answer these questions.
Set in the Florida prison where Ted Bundy (Luke Kirby) awaits his execution, while fighting the governor for leniency, No Man of God revolves around a series of interviews between the notorious serial killer and FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood). The script is based on the audiotape recordings between these two men prior to Bundy’s execution. At first Bundy is reluctant to meet with the prodigious profiler since he hates the FBI and finds their agents intellectually inferior. When they finally do meet, the killer wears a perpetual smirk, as if he’s hiding the secret to the grail, while Wood’s Hagmaier tries to penetrate his fortified persona with a subtle, humanistic approach. Over a series of years, the two form a complicated friendship. Hagmaier still means to extract the secrets of Bundy’s other victims before he’s put to death, but he withholds this information with a sinister conceit that wafts off the screen.
The first half of the film is absorbing. The acting is top-notch and the kinetic energy between these two characters is captivating. In particular, Kirby is fantastic and should be considered for an Oscar nomination. He plays Bundy as a cagey, explosive albeit intelligent manipulator. On one hand, he’s genuine, even engaging, but underneath the charismatic smile and sparkling gaze, you can feel his rage and intense need to control. Writer Kit Lesser’s dialogue pops in these opening scenes. In one harrowing soliloquy, Bundy details what it would take to understand a monster like himself and the depths Hagmaier must mine to get there. It’s a great piece of writing.
Still, you can’t help but wonder where the movie is going. Why do we care about an incarcerated Ted Bundy who’s fighting the system to spare his life? At times, the movie feels like an inferior version of Dead Man Walking, where the protagonist tries to penetrate the prisoner’s guard to extract a confession and spiritually free him before he’s executed.
Unfortunately, what could’ve been a sublime character study, unravels in the last act. The filmmakers simply ask too many questions and create scenarios which they refuse to confront honestly. You feel like you’re being flirted with, only to be shunned at the last minute. For example, Sealey posits questions regarding FBI Agent Hagmaier’s fragile state of mind. There are slow motion sequences where Hagmaier drives past beautiful women on the street. Are they saying he’s been psychologically tainted by Bundy and even considers the possibility of murdering these unsuspecting victims? Did Bundy worm himself that deeply into his subconscious? We don’t know.
Then there’s Bundy himself. By portraying him as someone who’s desperately fighting for his life, and even introducing his civil rights attorney (Aleksa Palladino), the filmmakers are asking if it’s possible to empathize with a murderer. If so, we never get close enough to the depth of Bundy’s character or any narrative edge to seriously consider that question. In fact, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what the movie is exploring. When the moment finally arrives where Bundy not only unburdens himself to Hagmaier, but pulls the audience into his private hell, the scene is self-consciously handled with questionable directorial tricks. What should be a frightening foray into a killer’s mind, just feels forced.
Perhaps the filmmakers are saying we’ll never really know what drove Ted Bundy to kill nearly thirty women (probably even more). But do we really need a movie to tell us that serial killers are inexplicable? Why not take a chance and offer a more concrete assessment? There’s no doubt that No Man of God is a deftly made, at times, gripping film. The production design and cinematography create an emotional and granular atmosphere, and the performances transcend the somewhat fractured story. However, the movie’s reticence to answer its own tough questions will probably leave its audience feeling a little cold, and not in an interesting way.