Horror

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Serial killers, and Ted Bundy specifically, are a well-trodden subject as of late, thanks to countless true-crime docs, biopics, and series. All seem to seek the answer to what drives them to commit unspeakable acts as they delve into life histories and detail the crimes. It begs the question, is there anything left unexplored? It turns out that some new ground may exist yet.

No Man of God frames its chamber piece around Ted Bundy’s final days but through the lens of a renowned FBI profiler.

No Man of God opens with brief text explaining the rise of criminal psychology and FBI profiling. At FBI headquarters, Behavioral Science Unit chief Robert Depue (Robert Patrick) reads off a list of incarcerated killers to his team. They eagerly claim each one on the list to interview and mine for psychological studies until Depue lists Ted Bundy (Luke Kirby). The mild-mannered Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) takes it on. With a special knack for cracking even the most challenging cases, Bill begins building a complicated relationship with the serial killer for the sake of science. But Bill learns that getting intimately acquainted with evil blurs moral lines and takes a toll.

Director Amber Sealey crafts an intricate character study that centers around two powerful performances. Much of the narrative transpires within the confines of an interrogation room. Hagmaier opens himself up to Bundy as a means of building trust. In turn, Bundy cycles between guarded, playful, and acceptance, but always creepy. There’s nothing romanticized about this representation of Bundy; Kirby plays him like evil personified with only glimpses of humanity. As he barrels toward his execution date, he grows desperate to cling to life or find solace. Wood is perfectly cast here for Hagmaier’s unassuming nature that disarms one of the world’s most notorious killers. The entire feature hinges on their understated push and pulls and the internal emotional arcs and both leads are captivating.

Writer C. Robert Cargill (Sinister), as Kit Lesser, based the screenplay on real-life transcripts. Sealey weaves in actual footage from Bundy’s era and the crowds that amass to cheer on his death. It’s a sobering means to highlight how Bundy’s evil permeates and affects those around him. Hagmaier acts as the proxy, the pure man tainted by corruption for getting so close for so long. It’s not just how the leads convey that or how the script removes any sense of glamor from Bundy’s atrocities. It’s in the way Sealey stages it. In a late scene media interview, Bundy recounts with graphic detail his method of murder. It’s all off-screen, with Sealy instead focuses solely on the crestfallen face of an assistant who’s losing a piece of her innocence in real-time as she stares directly into the camera.

Everything about the production design and camera work adds to the emotional authenticity. It captures the dingy essence of the ’80s in a muted manner that allows the performances to take center stage. No Man of God draws from actual interview transcripts with the killer and incorporates real-life footage, but it’s the performances that set it apart. It may not offer any new insight to Bundy himself, but it’s not meant to. Instead, Sealey turns the tables by exploring whether it’s possible to empathize, as well as the human cost of understanding a monster. No new revelations about Bundy subsist here; he is every bit the remorseless monster you’d expect. But telling his final days from Hagmaier’s perspective offers a unique and refreshing angle.

No Man of God made its world premiere at Tribeca Festival and will release in theaters this August.

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