No Man of God satisfies thrill-seeking viewers without succumbing to the pitfalls that plague previous Ted Bundy dramatizations and documentaries.
Another thriller based on serial murderer Ted Bundy, filmmaker Amber Sealey’s No Man of God distinguishes itself with a fresh take on the old source material. Several high-profile titles have dramatized real-life events in recent years, including Netflix’s hit documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. It is also based on interviews conducted while he was on death row. However, by shifting the narrative focus away from Ted Bundy (Luke Kirby) and onto FBI agent Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood), No Man of God can please thrill-seeking audiences without succumbing to the genre’s tropes.
No Man of God is centered on the experiences of FBI Special Agent Bill Hagmaier, who interviewed Ted Bundy from 1984 until his execution in 1989. Bundy despised cooperating with police authorities, even when facing the death penalty. The objective of Hagmaier’s interviews was to create a mental profile that might be used to detect other dangerous criminals. Still, the film clearly shows that the agent also wanted Bundy to confess to his crimes to benefit his victims’ families. Wood portrays Hagmaier as a kind, modest Christian whose honest demeanor and natural intelligence win Bundy over. Over time, the two develop a sort of friendship.
No Man of God is deceptively basic, and many will miss Sealey’s subtle ways of reinvigorating the main (overused) idea. The thriller is more about Hagmaier’s grim struggle to discover the truth than about the atrocities Bundy committed. Wood portrays the role with an understated intensity that works particularly effectively to counteract Bundy’s ferociousness. Kirby is undoubtedly one of the finest (if not the best) actors to play the serial murderer – the physical resemblance is remarkable, and Kirby does a good job capturing the killer’s mannerisms and speech. The fact that Bundy is not the main character undoubtedly helps the portrayal’s credibility. The chemistry between Wood and Kirby is obvious onscreen, and despite numerous extremely extended interview sequences, the intensity remains high owing to both superb performances and Sealey’s close camerawork.
No Man of God takes a different approach than previous American crime stories. Kit Lesser, the screenwriter, doesn’t bother attempting to generate tension with a mystery – after all, the facts are widely known by the public at this point. The tension is emotional mainly, teasing the spectator with hints of Bundy’s influence corrupting family-man Hagmaier. The titillation in No Man of God goes beyond the base attraction of most sexually laden criminal thrillers. While other true-story depictions of Bundy’s crimes — and even documentaries — focus on the horrifically violent acts and the twisted depravity of the central serial killer, No Man of God shifts the focus away from the acts and instead emphasizes the perplexing mix of sexual allure and violent impulses that often motivates such crimes.
No Man of God’s feminist undertones is maybe its most impressive achievement. Crime scene photos, which are so common in actual crime, are absent. Instead, Sealey crafts an atmosphere of violent perversion, pushing the viewer to consider Bundy’s impulses as a product of society as a sign of his sick, sociopathic psyche. Sealey regularly inserts images of lone, gorgeous women staring at the camera, referring to Bundy’s own goals; yet, as the film proceeds, the duration and emotional depth of the photos rise. While the pictures of women being “looked at” begin as more objectification, the women’s humanity is restored at the finale. It’s a startling clever move that empowers the female characters while challenging the audience’s assumptions.
Sealey’s directing is a standout in No Man of God. The use of archive footage montages to segue between time eras is a brilliant choice: they add to the overall mood of the period piece while also developing the film’s themes of sexual desire, female objectification, and corruption. Although the film is modest and straightforward, it tackles its subject matter well: Bundy is evil, and Hagmaier knows it — yet despite coming from two very different worlds, the two manage to connect.
No Man of God is afraid to criticize “lawful” wickedness, either – evangelical Christian psychologist James Dobson (Christian Clemenson) comes out as especially heinous, happily squandering necessary time for the sake of his “cause.” No Man of God, on the whole, presents a more mature and nuanced look at human depravity, rejecting the temptation to praise or romanticize characters like Bundy but simultaneously reminding audiences that moral rot shows itself in a variety of ways.
“No Man of God” opens in US theaters and is on-demand on August 27.