No Man of God, 2021.
Directed by Amber Sealey.
Starring Elijah Wood, Robert Patrick, Luke Kirby, Aleksa Palladino, and Christian Clemenson.
Sentenced to death by electrocution, serial killer Ted Bundy develops a strange and complicated relationship with FBI agent Bill Hagmaier while detailing his heinous crimes.
The general public’s obsession with serial killers is seemingly tireless enough that we’ve had four major pieces of Ted Bundy media released in the last two years alone – movies Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile and American Boogeyman, and on the TV side, documentary series The Ted Bundy Tapes and Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer.
As such, even the most ardent Bundy obsessive was hardly on the lookout for yet another movie, and with Netflix’s Mindhunter having done such firm justice to FBI profiling, can a new film covering similar ground really justify its existence?
The answer is surprisingly mostly “yes” for Amber Sealey’s (No Light and No Land Anywhere) new feature No Man of God, which with its small number of sets and pared-down, intimate focus makes even Mindhunter seem gregarious by comparison.
In the early 1980s, rookie FBI agent Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) spearheads the organisation’s Behavioural Analysis Unit, which seeks to profile violent criminals in an attempt to better understand their crimes. Hagmaier ends up assigned to profile Bundy (Luke Kirby), where a peculiar bond forms between the pair which forever changes their lives.
With so much of the film simply involving two men talking to one another in an unremarkable interrogation room, Sealey’s film often smacks of a filmed play, which while guaranteed to disappoint those hoping for a more lurid, leering engagement with the infamous central figure, is a sure refreshing approach. Bluntly, don’t expect to see grisly glimpses of dead bodies or slick recreations of murder set-pieces.
Spanning from 1985 to 1989, No Man of God quietly turns the screws by presenting a slyly tense cat-and-mouse game between the duo, where audiences for a time are asked to consider who, exactly, is inside whose head. Is Hagmaier’s over-sharing of personal information a result of Bundy’s expert manipulation, or simply a four-dimensional chess move by Hagmaier to have the killer lower his guard?
If the rapport between the two feels unavoidably a bit rushed – an entire season of TV would probably be needed to fully persuade – the script from C. Robert Cargill smartly avoids indulging cynical cliches, namely the overdone “we’re the same, you and I” typicality between killer and cop.
There’s a societal literacy to the screenplay that impressively avoids feeling didactic, despite the many still-relevant subjects Bundy and Hagmaier discuss at length throughout; the troubling interplay of sex and violence in the media; inadequate mental health support; the dehumanisation of serial killers as “monsters”; society’s desperate desire to pathologise killers with lazy pop psychology; and the ghoulish circus which calls for the perpetrator’s blood.
But with such a scarcity of fanciful style or zingy dialogue, it really falls to the two lead actors to sell the story as worthwhile, and that they do wonderfully. Wood, who has made a name for himself playing beguiling creeps in recent years, returns to a more boy scout-type part here. Despite the fear that Hagmaier’s story would simply suck time away from Bundy, he proves an intriguingly ambiguous, fully-formed character in his own right.
But Bundy is the more vital part to knock out of the park, and Emmy winner Luke Kirby does an outstanding job rendering Bundy as a three-dimensional person while avoiding caricature, particularly the near-mythic conception of Bundy as an impossibly charming psychopath.
Wood and Kirby’s interplay throughout is exceptional, building to a fascinating head in the third act as the ticking clock of Bundy’s impending execution is introduced, along with the specific role that Hagmaier plays in deciding his fate. Fans of veteran character actors should also enjoy brief-but-welcome appearances by Robert Patrick and W. Earl Brown – as Hagmaier’s boss and Bundy’s warden respectively.
In addition to tastefully grounded writing and sharp performances, Sealey commands a solid technical package; DP Karina Silva makes brilliantly indicting use of close-ups, especially near the end of the movie, with precise framing elevating the otherwise simple staging.
The pic’s general stoicism is occasionally interrupted, however, by frenetic montages to depict the passage of time – such as 1988 being ushered in with clips of George H.W. Bush’s presidential election – which prove slightly jarring to the overall tonality. Overall, though, with its lack of excess camera movement and washed-out colour grade, the prevailing aesthetic ably evokes the era.
No Man of God can’t help but pale in comparison to the long-form brilliance of Mindhunter, but there’s a sober pull to its quietly sinister mood and strong performances from Wood and Kirby.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.