The world is long overdue for a reckoning about its collective fascination with Ted Bundy. In spite of, or perhaps because of, his assaulting and murdering nearly 40 women in his short life, he is treated more like a gentleman bandit than a monster. For example, the tagline for the early release of No Man of God, the latest piece of entertainment to return Bundy to the spotlight, refers to him as “The World’s Most Famous Serial Killer”. Talk about faint praise.
So far, the loudest chatter about this new film concerns some passive-aggressive sniping going on between its director Amber Sealey and Joe Berlinger, the filmmaker and producer behind two 2019 projects about Bundy and his crimes. In interviews about the film, Sealey insists that, unlike other films about the murderer, hers doesn’t sensationalize Bundy. Berlinger read between the lines and took offense.
To Sealey’s credit, neither she nor screenwriter C. Robert Cargill sensationalizes Bundy or the awful things that he did. When the details are mentioned, the effect is nauseating. His supposed charisma and good looks are portrayed as the dangerous attributes they likely were. As Bundy, played here by Luke Kirby, frantically attempts to avoid the electric chair, at one point he gently grabs the arm of his lawyer (Aleksa Palladino) to make a quiet point. Were it not for the sleeve of her satiny purple blouse, we might have been able to spy her skin crawling.
No Man of God instead wants what every writer and artist and podcast host and film/TV producer has wanted since Bundy was executed in 1989: to understand him. That was the goal of Bill Hagmaier, a real-life FBI analyst portrayed in the film by Elijah Wood. For years, he gained Bundy’s trust and recorded hours of interviews with the murderer to build a psychological profile that would help them catch similar criminals.
Cargill’s script was built from transcripts of those taped conversations and Hagmaier’s recollections of his time with Bundy. An unusual friendship apparently grew out of these sporadic interactions. In the film, it’s a relationship that weighed heavily on Hagmaier, wrestling as he does with his own moral compass and the religious faith that would ask him to forgive Bundy. Wood does a fair job rendering this on-screen. His glassy eyes and rumpled demeanor easily evoke the tortured spirit of a man trying to look at this as just another job when it very much isn’t.
As No Man of God reaches the last week of Bundy’s life, the film loses its center. Cargill and Sealey’s attempts to continue the argument about whether someone this evil is deserving of absolution—and their implications about the potential of all men to follow in his footsteps—get scrambled in overdone sequences and awkward interstitials. The actors follow suit. Until the third act, Kirby is sensational, pulling from the same well of coiled restraint and oily charm that earned him an Emmy for his portrayal of comedian Lenny Bruce in Amy Sherman-Palladino’s series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. As his character gets closer to the electric chair, he starts to hit a series of bum notes and showy tics.
Even at its best, the film doesn’t come close to understanding Bundy’s psychopathy, outside of an underlying implication that, in the right circumstances, all men are capable of doing what he did. It’s a reminder that, because of savages like Bundy, women spend far too much time wondering if the car creeping alongside them as they walk down the street or the hand grabbing hold of their arm is a threat or not.
That’s best exemplified by a simple, powerful moment. Bundy, in a last-ditch effort to prove his contrition and earn a pardon, agrees to an on-camera interview with evangelical preacher James Dobson (Christian Clemenson). As Bundy prattles on about how his heinous deeds were fueled by his discovery of pornography, the camera leaves him and slowly zooms in on the young woman holding the boom mic.
Her expression appears stoic at first but starts to reveal the anguish, anger, and fear roiling inside her. By the end of the scene, tears are starting to well in her eyes. Yet through it all, she holds the boom steady. In spite of being five feet from the embodiment of pure evil and misogyny, she persists.