No Man Of God

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

No Man Of God
"One of the finest films of the year." | Photo: Courtesy of FrightFest

There’s a moment in No Man Of God when Ted Bundy, the infamous serial killer who raped, mutilated and murdered 30 or more women and girls, is talking to a journalist, putting the blame for his crimes on Detective Comics, claiming that they led him into temptation. He has his hair slicked back, that toothy grin, eyes alternately flashing with wit or big and serious, that face the papers called handsome. He knows how to play to camera, but watching him from behind it is a young woman, and Amber Sealey’s camera drifts away from Bundy’s face to hers. This woman knows what he is. She sees through his bullshit as almost every woman always has – and yet, to date, very few have contributed to the telling of this story.

Sealey isn’t interested in Bundy’s story. We’ve heard it enough, and there’s certainly no shortage of opportunities to see young women raped and murdered onscreen, so no reason to repeat that here. The focus of this film is on the Bundy myth. As we watch a man who seems very different from the one cosying up to the journalist go through a series of discussions with a psychologist in a prison interrogation room, Sealy painstakingly deconstructs that myth and prompts viewers to wonder why it is that so many people bought into it – why so many, especially men, have become so invested in the idea that he was a genius or, at least, extremely unusual.

Copy picture

The film opens with the psychologist, Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood), driving to work. A woman’s car eases up alongside his and he catches her eye. Later, he sees her walking along. Anyone familiar with Bundy’s crimes will know that he liked to stalk his victims and watch them much like this before breaking into their homes. Were it not for the fact that popular culture make it impossible not to know who’s playing who before watching a film like this, we might almost wonder if he were Bundy. We see, too, something in the woman’s movements that tells us she is no less wary because Bundy is behind bars. One need only click away from this review and go on Twitter to see men displaying the same hatred and contempt for women. What makes the difference between the killers (or would-be killers) and the rest? Is Bill at risk of thinking more like Bundy as he spends time around him?

It’s Bill’s job to befriend the murderer and try to coax out evidence of his crimes, of who and how he killed, or why. Bundy (played by Luke Kirby, who shared Sealey’s misgivings yet fully commits himself to the role) is not stupid, and understands the game, but he too has a goal in mind. He’s invested in convincing the world that he’s brilliant and that he has a special insight into serial killing, and he wants to use Bill to do it – because that would make him useful, and being useful might keep him alive. The bulk of the film deals with this game, played out in a small, windowless room yet never less than gripping. Both men know that they can’t risk getting too close, and Bill is appalled by what Bundy has done, yet something like friendship develops nonetheless, and an intimacy which might yet lead one of them to let down his guard. At one point Bill, close to losing his temper, lashes out with a remark about what Bundy did “to those girls.” “Most of them were women,” says Bundy without thinking, revealing that he could easily recognise their autonomy.

These scenes are based on Hagmaier’s actual tapes of the interviews, which he shared with screenwriter Kit Lesser. They include moments where he comments on other cases, highlighting how useless his supposed insights often were. There is nothing gratuitous about this. Sealey has not set out to humiliate him, merely to look at what remains when the familiar sensationalist lens is taken away. Kirby’s work ensures that he’s still interesting to watch. His Bundy is alert to his own bullshit and sometimes amused by the way people accept it, but is also aware that Hagmaier isn’t one of those. Though he tries intimidating him to begin with, he never seems to fully trust the politely submissive approach that the psychologist adopts. In time, his approach will become more human, as he wakes up to the reality of his impending death.

The film, which enjoyed its UK première at Frightfest, has made a big impression on other filmmakers and on critics. Can it do the same with the public, or maintain its momentum as awards season approaches? One fears that it will not, in the end, get its due, rather as Mary’s Harron’s similarly blunt and brilliant takedown of Manson, Charlie Says, drifted quietly by whilst Quentin Tarantino’s cutesy but far less observant Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood was lauded. People don’t like to see their heroes looking small, and they like it even less when that happens to their monsters. It is, of course, the job of artists to tell the truth regardless, and on this particular subject, that has been a long time coming. No Man Of God is one of the finest films of the year.

Reviewed on: 30 Aug 2021
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No Man Of God packshot
To better understand the infamous serial killer’s crimes, FBI investigator Bill Hagmaier sits down with Ted Bundy for multiple jailhouse interviews over five years. Their conversations lead to unexpected results.

Director: Amber Sealey

Writer: C Robert Cargill

Starring: Elijah Wood, Luke Kirby, Aleksa Palladino, Robert Patrick

Year: 2021

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: US


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