No Man Of God first published by VODzilla.co
No Man Of God begins at its end, in 1989, with a TV news report stating that “after an exhausting series of appeals that lasted ten years, Ted Bundy is dead” – executed in the electric chair at the Florida State Prison. In this way, Amber Sealey’s feature announces from the outset that it is telling a true crime story, ripped from the headlines of recent history, and tapping into a renewed interest in the notorious serial killer, as seen in John Berlinger’s docudrama Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) and Berlinger’s Netflix docu-series Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (also 2019). Moreover, in showing interviews between the incarcerated Bundy (Luke Kirby) and rookie FBI Special Agent – and pioneering ‘profiler’ – Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood, who is also one of the producers), the film conforms to a plot type first popularised in Jonathan Demme’s fictive The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and more recently in David Fincher’s Netflix series Mindhunter (2017, 2019). Indeed, a key scene reveals that No Man Of God might just as easily have been called ‘The Silence of the Rat’; and with news that the much-anticipated third series of Mindhunter is now indefinitely on hold, Sealey’s film, similarly concerned with the FBI’s early programmes to interview and profile serial killers, might seem to be filling a gap in the market – although it is no mere adjunct to existing properties.
“Just the biography, not the crime scene photos”, insists Hagmaier when Roger Depue (Robert Patrick), his boss in the newly formed National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, offers to pull all the files on Bundy for him. Hagmaier’s words, coming very early in No Man Of God, represent a programmatic statement of intent. For C. Robert Cargill’s screenplay, “inspired by FBI transcripts, recordings, and the recollections of Bill Hagmaier”, repeatedly eschews the more sensationalist elements of true crime representations. Here there are no attempts to reconstruct or visualise Bundy’s well-documented crimes, and while Bundy certainly sees himself as a Hannibal Lecter figure avant la lettre – a supervillainous genius running sophisticated circles around all whom he encounters – the film itself presents a more nuanced biography of a self-involved, self-pitying narcissist incapable of empathising with others and given to constant manipulation, pathological lying and much, much worse, all for no obvious purpose.
At one point in their conversations (which took place sporadically over four years), Hagmaier brings up a best-selling book to which Bundy had contributed from prison. “Well we did correctly anticipate the baser desires of the book-buying public,” comments Bundy, dismissively. “They do want to be titillated.” No such accusation could be made against No Man Of God, which handles the presentation of real-life horrors with a studious sensitivity, and shuns the pornification of rape and murder. “I’m going to give them the truth,” Bundy will promise in his last days, before adding, “but in a measured manner”. That modifier summarises Sealey’s approach too, wherein Bundy’s confessions are reduced to purely verbal accounts, and even the words of his final, climactic revelation are cut up into fragmented, impressionistic, even hallucinatory snatches of disconnected phrasing.
The only images to accompany Bundy’s descriptions of his predatory activities are in fact taken not from his own experiences, but from his audience Hagmaier’s, driving past women in the street or passing them in corridors. The film may flirt with the idea that all men are capable, as Bundy openly suggests, of doing what he has done, and that Hagmaier, coming with his own difficult childhood, has the potential to become a Bundy. It even suggests a comparison, however asymmetrical, between Bundy’s multiple killings and Hagmaier’s part in the state’s murder of Bundy. There is an obvious parallel being drawn between these two men in their ongoing dialectic: both have degrees in psychology and an interest in serial killers, both tell lies to each other, both describe, in hypothetical, counterfactual terms, how they would go about stalking and murdering others while insisting that they would never do this themselves. Yet these analogies serve mostly to illustrate the kind of assimilation and extreme empathy required of a profiler, who must identify closely with the subject to gain greater understanding of him. No matter what, in diving with Bundy into the deep waters of depravity, Hagmaier may discover about himself and his own capacities, the fact remains that Bundy wants and chooses to kill, and to do so repeatedly, where Hagmaier – rather straightforwardly – does not. Meanwhile, viewers watching these two men’s conversation unfold must determine – uncomfortably – where on this shifting spectrum of character their own appetites and allegiances lie.
Like many films with a serial killer at their centre, No Man of God runs the risk of marginalising its female characters to mere victims and objects – but Sealey resists this in interesting ways. In one sequence, as Bundy, being interviewed before cameras by a televangelist (Christian Clemenson), blames pornography for his actions (in what we know, from what Bundy has previously said to Hagmaier on the same topic, is a profoundly deceitful, self-serving apologia), DP Karina Silva’s own camera turns away from Bundy to focus (reflexively) on a female crew member (Hannah Jessup) who stares at the lying Bundy with grim impassivity, confronting us with the very personhood of a woman that his words seek to instrumentalise and erase from the picture. The one fully realised female character in the film is Carolyn Lieberman (Aleksa Palladino), Bundy’s civil attorney who plays a pivotal rôle in his last seven days. When she first appears, the prison’s warden (W. Earl Brown) implies to Hagmaier that Lieberman’s relationship with Bundy is something more than professional (a claim that an unsympathetic observer might just as easily make of Hagmaier himself), and Hagmaier quickly comes to regard her as an impediment to justice for the victims’ families. Yet in a later scene, when Lieberman is able to speak for herself rather than merely be judged by others, she economically exposes the sexist double-standard in Hagmaier’s suggestion that she should go home and spend more time with her family (when he does not), and she challenges his sense of guilt-free righteousness about both the case and his own rôle in the process of execution. It is the first time we see the agent from a woman’s perspective, as opposed to merely being reflected in a serial killer’s eyes, and he does not emerge from this rather different gaze looking quite so heroic.
All of which is to say that No Man Of God is a messy, complicated portrait of two different men on either side of criminality, and that rarest of things, a film about a real mass murderer – and about atrocities from within living memory – that somehow manages always to avoid exploitation and to remain entirely within the limits of responsibility and good taste while intelligently interrogating its own form.
strap: Amber Sealey’s true-crime psychodrama interrogates serial killer Ted Bundy’s last years on death row without sensationalism or exploitation
© Anton Bitel