[Tribeca 2021 Review] 'No Man of God' Pulls the Mask Off Ted Bundy to Reveal the Monster He Was
At some point, you’d think we as a society would be sick of Ted Bundy stories…
…Between multiple films (some very recent), TV specials, books and other media over the last thirty+ years, what more is there really left to say on Bundy? The answer is more or less nothing much, but that doesn’t mean the public’s fascination with this real-life monster has ended, and if we’re talking about looking at him from purely an angle of intrigue, director Amber Sealey’s No Man of God is arguably one of the more interesting narratives around Bundy that takes us deep down into the darkness of the man’s soul, if he ever even had one.
Spoiler: he didn’t.
Written by C. Robert Cargill (Sinister) and having just world premiered at Tribeca, No Man of God is an introspective look at the relationship between one of the original FBI profilers, Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) and Bundy (Luke Kirby). Beginning in the early 80s and taking us all the way through to Bundy’s final days, the film follows Bill and his interactions with the infamous killer as he seeks not just a confession to all of the murders, but an answer to the question everyone always wants to know: Why?
Any time a new Bundy film comes along, the immediate worry is always, is this going to glorify the man, or is it going to present him as the human excrement he was? Look no further than the recent Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile for an example of a film that tried to bring sympathy to Bundy, presented him as somewhat of a “cool guy” star, and made it all about him instead of his victims. Oh, and Hollywood hottie Zac Efron playing Bundy? Get out of here. Rest assured that No Man of God treats the material with a profound understanding and respect for the victims that so many previous Bundy depictions have failed to do in the past.
If you’ve seen the show Mindhunter—watch it, it’s great—then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from No Man of God. That series also followed Bill Hagmaier and his investigations around the country, with the prime focus on his discussions with killers. No Man of God is essentially all of the best elements of Mindhunter boiled down into one seriously intense deep dive into the darkness of Ted Bundy. No fluff. No added drama with Bill’s superiors to keep things interesting. This film is all about the highly intimate and highly disturbing relationship between Bill and Ted, and it is most excellent.
With most of No Man of God centered around conversations between Bill and Ted—complete with Cargill’s titillating dialogue—Elijah Wood and Luke Kirby are put in the spotlight and given a chance to shine, and the results are cinematic magic. I can’t imagine a better choice to play Bill than Elijah. Wood has always been great at playing off-kilter types, and here he brings just enough of that to make you question his own darkness as Ted pokes and pries underneath the belly of Bill’s mind, while also bringing a ton of vulnerability to the character that has him feeling like Ted’s prey from the moment he walks into the room. Bill never quite feels in control, and that’s the point. Ted Bundy was a predator, and a bit of a Hannibal Lecter type in the ways which he toyed with the minds of others, only he was never as obvious about it as Lecter. As has always been reported, he had a charm to him.
And no one, I mean no one, has done a better job of bringing Ted Bundy to life than Luke Kirby.
My knock at Efron earlier isn’t about Efron. The man is a brilliant actor. It’s more about the choice of Efron to play Ted, because it played into public misperception of Ted being some sort of gorgeous lady’s man. He wasn’t. For lack of a better word, Ted was an “average” guy, and that’s what made him so effective as a predator. He blended in. Kirby captures that wonderfully. Luke brings a sense of “normalcy” to the character. He doesn’t distract the audience with his looks, but his calm, mostly friendly demeanor (outside of a few frightening moments of anger). Kirby is chilling in the role, because he has a way of making us feel at ease, despite knowing what he is, which allows for moments where he does lose it to shock viewers to their core. There is a sense of violence underneath his smooth delivery, and you simply can’t take your eyes off of him.
Wood and Kirby are magnetic in their roles, and every moment between them is utterly captivating. I could’ve watched them play off of each other for hours. Paired with Sealey’s confident direction, a skin-prickling score, and smoky, yellowish lighting to enhance the mood, No Man of God burrows deep inside your heart, where it waits for the perfect moment to shred whatever innocence you have left to pieces.
This is a film that doesn’t feature much violence, but feels violent all throughout. Intercut with the occasional montage of old video footage ranging from family home movies, nature, etc, there is a voyeuristic vibe to the whole thing. We ourselves are voyeurs of Bundy’s mind, as is Bill. “Maybe someday, if I can trust you, I’ll take you under the water with me,” says Bundy, and No Man of God indeed drags us into the darkest depths of Bundy’s metaphorical ocean of horror.
Most importantly though, Sealey and Cargill refuse to legitimize Bundy. It may seem like it at times, with Kirby so successfully manipulating the audience into some small amount of empathy—not sympathy, there’s a difference—but No Man of God is intent on pulling the mask off of Bundy and revealing the slimy creature underneath. This is a painful, powerful film exploring just how far Bundy’s manipulation went.
One moment in particular will haunt me for months, and that is a shot that slowly pushes into a young woman as she listens to Bundy speak, disgust turning to fear turning to tears in her eyes. That right there is the effect this film aims to have on its audience, and it without question succeeds in that.
If you’re done with Bundy movies, I get it. But while I wouldn't exactly call No Man of God a "satisfying" movie, if you’re still looking for that film that speaks some truth to what Bundy was, No Man of God is the movie you’ve been waiting for.
By Matt Konopka
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