Two powerhouse performances are at the core of the new Ted Bundy biopic “No Man of God” from director Amber Sealey. Luke Kirby is riveting as the serial killer who confessed to murdering over 30 young women in the 70s while Elijah Wood is superb as FBI agent Bill Hagmaier who spent over 200 hours interviewing Bundy in prison over a period of several years. Based on real-life transcripts and audio recordings, the film takes on a “Silence of the Lambs” ambiance as two very different minds, both proficient in psychology, scrutinize one another in an attempt at insight into the other’s thought process.
Criminal Profiling has become a viable tool in the apprehension of homicidal offenders thanks to Bill Hagmaier who became chief of the bureau’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crimes. There were only five special agents assigned to the FBI’s Behavior Analysis Unit which was established in the 1970s to better understand the psychology of violent serial offenders.
Robert Patrick plays FBI supervisor Roger Depue who asks for volunteers, tasking agents with interviewing serial killers to understand what motivated each to commit violent crimes. David Berkowitz and Lawrence Bittaker are snatched up right away, but no one wants to touch Ted Bundy based on his refusal to talk with law enforcement officials; He also hates Feds. Rookie agent Bill Hagmaier (Wood) takes the assignment noting, “I’ve been able to develop informants that nobody thought would talk.” Depue gives him the assignment and informs Hagmaier that he’ll have the Bundy files pulled for him. “Just the biography, not the crime scene photos” Hagmaier requests as he begins to study his perpetrator’s past.
It’s been almost 10 years since Wood appeared as Frodo Baggins in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the actor’s boyish looks remain intact. Seriously, he hasn’t aged. He’s credited as the producer of “No Man of God” which follows a string of bold indie successes he also produced including Adam Egypt Mortimer’s “Archenemy” and “Daniel Isn’t Real” plus the Nicolas Cage thrillers “Color Out of Space” and “Mandy.”
Written by fellow Texan C. Robert Cargill (under the pseudonym Kit Lesser) who resides in Austin — he also co-wrote the two “Sinister” films and Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” — most of the cat and mouse thriller takes place at the Florida State Prison where Bundy awaits execution on Death Row. Before agreeing to meet Hagmaier, the serial killer requests a handwritten letter from the agent. The two eventually begin writing to each other over the course of their four-year visits which sometimes lasted for 20 hours.
The first meeting gets off to a rough start as Bundy asserts “You think you’re better than me.” He points out that witness protection doesn’t work, and the FBI is doing a lousy job of capturing serial killers. He’s correct on both points which partly explains Hagmaier’s presence, he’s hoping that Bundy will offer insight on the wanted Green River Killer.
A bond develops between Bundy and Hagmaier that’s hard to explain. A mutual understanding would best summarize their relationship. Hagmaier is smart by never talking down to Bundy. He treats him as an equal and by all accounts, he is when it comes to intelligence. Both men have psychology degrees which makes their conversations captivating. They know when to push each other’s buttons and when to pull back. Sealy accentuates the mood by providing an intimate atmosphere complete with dark walls and ambient lighting for these one-on-one conversations. It feels like the two actors are on a stage performing a play or in a dimly lit restaurant having dinner. Without any distractions, the atmosphere is ripe to keep the viewer focused on the dialogue. Sealy moves in for plenty of closeups, another great tool to help the audience commit to the scene as we study both characters the way they are examining each other.
Wood’s attentive gaze and piercing blue eyes are perfect for the character. He would be easy to talk to and so it’s convincing when Bundy opens up to the federal agent after giving the cold shoulder to those who came before him.
The film’s strongest asset is Luke Kirby’s stellar performance as Bundy. He resembles the charismatic serial killer, plus Kirby is bewitching as he delivers his lines with confidence and in a relaxed manner reminiscent of Agent Smith in “The Matrix.” He has a warm smile that lured the countless women he abducted and killed, sometimes posing as a police officer.
The fact that “No Man of God” is based on the actual transcripts and recollections of Bill Hagmaier (who worked as a consultant on the film) makes this a gripping biopic that skips the usual tropes that are commonplace in films about serial killers. There are no flashbacks. We don’t see Bundy stalking his victims or committing monstrous acts. Sealy even skips the graphic crime scene photos, but she makes her case by giving Kirby full control to use his talent to display the evil that resides inside Bundy.
When Kirby looks into Wood’s eyes and tells him “I’m going to take you somewhere that I’ve never taken anyone before” it leads into a monologue as Bundy chillingly recounts one of his murders step-by-step, eyes closed, as if he’s going into a trance. Sealy zooms in on Kirby’s lips as Bundy describes his victim “I want her so bad” while Hagmaier looks on in horror. When the details turn gruesome Kirby’s eyes widen, a frenzied look overcomes his face and, at that moment, Hagmaier gets what he came for and so does the viewer. Riveting.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing in select theaters and available to rent On-demand