Written by Anna Harrison
No Man of God director Amber Sealey recently posted on Instagram a lengthy email from director Joe Berlinger, in which he accused her of taking aim at his own films about Ted Bundy—Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile with Zac Efron, and the documentary Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes—in a Refinery29 interview, where Sealey stated, “I don’t personally believe that any of the movies that have already been made up until now have really shown the real Bundy… They always glorify him.”
Now, leaving aside the moral quandary that arises from this rather immature spat, the question arises: Can there ever exist a movie about Bundy without glorification? There is always a certain voyeuristic fascination with figures like him, even as we are repulsed by their actions; America has a constant need for celebrity, and killers, especially charismatic men like Bundy and Charles Manson, fill those shoes with ease. François Truffaut famously claimed that “There is no such thing as an anti-war film”; can there exist a movie about a figure like Ted Bundy that doesn’t glorify him?
It’s a hard thing to avoid, especially when Bundy as played by Luke Kirby oozes a snakelike charm throughout No Man of God, even at his most despicable. You can’t help but be fascinated by him, by the cocked eyebrows and tilted head, something that FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood, who needs to drop his skincare routine as soon as possible) comes to find after he volunteers to interview Bundy in an effort to discover what makes serial killers tick. “Dear Mr. Bundy,” Hagmaier writes before tossing the paper. He eventually settles on, “Dear T.,” and so correspondence begins. Eventually, correspondence begins, and Hagmaier makes various trips down to Florida over the course of several years while Bundy waits in limbo, still denying his crimes.
The two make an odd couple: Bundy, slippery and dangerous, and Hagmaier, straightforward and devout. But they are fascinated by each other, and by the knowledge that, had things only been a little different, their places could have been switched: Bundy as the agent, Hagmaier as the killer. An obsession with “normal” plagues them both; could normal people do what they do? Are normal people capable of what Bundy did, or are both Bundy and Hagmaier unnatural? Together, Wood and Kirby form an infinitely watchable duo, simultaneously bouncing off of and melding into each other. They discuss everything from elementary school hijinks to pornography, getting closer and closer as they circle each other, probing into each other’s psyche. Does Bundy truly view Hagmaier as a friend, or is he just manipulating him?
However, the excellent performances make the shortcomings of the film that much more frustrating. Writer C. Robert Cargill of Doctor Strange, under the pen name Kit Lesser, carefully creates the parallels between Hagmaier and Bundy, but fails to elaborate on them past the surface level; it’s hard not to think about others that have done it better, especially in certain adaptations about a cannibal with a suspicious-sounding name. The real Hagmaier served as an executive producer for No Man of God, and part of me wonders if that hamstrung the film and Cargill had to step back from anything too damning lest he paint Hagmaier in a negative light. What could have been engrossing psychological drama ends up being rather unremarkable material elevated by the two leads at its center.
The best moments come towards the end, when the media frenzy reaches a high around Bundy and he begins, for the first time, to fear his own death. Kirby never lets the viewer forget Bundy’s nature, his cold misogyny and violence, but by degrees lets in a real vulnerability as he reckons with his impending doom. It’s a tightrope act that Kirby walks with apparent ease. Wood shines too as Bundy finally lays bare the nature of his crimes and the depths to which he sank to Hagmaier, an excellently edited sequence cutting between the two so quickly it becomes hard to tell who’s who, the closest the film gets to committing to the merging of Hagmaier and Bundy.
Does Sealey succeed in making a film that doesn’t glorify Bundy? It’s hard to say; perhaps its mere existence glorifies him. Though Sealey attempts to try a new approach with Bundy, No Man of God ultimately retreads well-worn ground, and the efforts to separate itself from the crowd don’t go far enough. The seeds of a gripping character-driven psychological thriller are all planted, but despite Wood and Kirby’s best efforts, they fail to produce anything more than sprouts.
No Man of God is currently streaming as part of the Tribeca 2021 Film Festival thru Tribeca at Home(available only in the USA). No Man of God is currently scheduled for Theatrical Release on August 27th.