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“No Man of God,” the latest in a long line of recent Ted Bundy films, premiered Friday at the 20th annual Tribeca Film Festival. Lauded as “the most sober and psychologically intricate look at the killer’s story yet” by the festival, the movie stars Elijah Wood and Luke Kirby in a cognitive cat-and-mouse feature. While some true crime fans may have gotten their fill with the recent years’ plethora of Ted Bundy productions, "No Man of God" manages to stand firmly on its own two legs.
The true-crime film centers on Bundy’s final years in a Florida State Prison during the 1980s. Played by Luke Kirby, the calm and calculating Bundy converses with FBI analyst Bill Hagmaier (Wood), one of the founding fathers of criminal profiling and one of five FBI agents in the then-newly established Behavioral Analysis Unit.
“I’m not looking for evidence,” Hagmaier profoundly says. “I’m looking for understanding.”
Based on the real-life interviews between Bundy and Hagmaier, lines are blurred in the relationship that forms between the pair over the next four years, as Bundy makes Hagmaier question his own core beliefs. In one example, Bundy brings Hagmaier to ask if he himself is capable of stalking and killing women, as the film flashes to Hagmaier's own observations of an attractive woman in his neighborhood.
It’s easy for one to roll their eyes at yet another Ted Bundy film. The true-crime market feels saturated recently with varying portrayals of the charismatic murderer. With productions like Netflix’s film “Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile” and the documentary “Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” both directed by Joe Berlinger, audiences may feel like they’ve learned everything they need to know.
But what viewers will get with “No Man of God” are the 11th-hour emotions of Bundy in the years and days and hours leading up to his execution: the fear, the anxiety, and the existential uncertainty of an often cool and collected monster.
Directed by Amber Sealey, the film is a refreshingly new angle into Bundy. For once, Bundy isn’t the driving vehicle: now, Bill Hagmaier, the devoutly religious FBI agent, guides this psychological ride. Accented with real-life news footage and aesthetically hypnotizing montages depicting a killer’s psyche, the movie strays away from the macabre beats one might expect to see and instead gives us Hannibal Lecter-ish exclusivity into the dark depths of a killer’s line of thought. Like "Silence of The Lambs", the protagonist looks for insight from the killer, this time asking Bundy for his educational expertise when trying to profile The Green River Killer, just as Clarice Starling sought out Lecter to help her pursue Buffalo Bill. Over the years, the sterile environment in a cold, prison interrogation room evolves into a more friendly atmosphere, including when the pair exchange stories about their children. Hagmaier finds himself second-guessing whether or not their relationship is crossing professional boundaries.
In that sense, the relationship is reminiscent of Truman Capote becoming too emotionally attached to the murderers from his iconic book, "In Cold Blood."
Despite the things that set this film apart from other Ted Bundy projects, it's hard to dance around the topic of Joe Berlinger's successful projects, both of which appeared on Netflix in 2019. That became evident this week after Amber Sealey posted screenshots of an impassioned email from Berlinger on her Instagram page.
"Tearing down my work to promote yours is a slippery slope and intellectually dishonest and deeply offensive," Berlinger wrote in the email. It's not clear which specific comments from Sealey miffed him. She said she hasn't mentioned his work by name.
"Received this unsolicited email this morning," captioned Sealey. "Thanks for the support, Joe. We have an extra ticket for you to the #NoManOfGod premiere tonight if you'd like to see the movie for yourself and we can discuss more in person openly? Cuz this felt like you were just trying to make me feel s----y right before my screening."
You can read the email in its entirety here.
During a live Q&A at the Tribeca premiere, Elijah Wood noted that the script came to him six years ago, alluding to the notion that Sealey had plans to make this film before the recent wave of Bundy-related projects. The question of how "No Man of God" compares to other those other films was the first be asked by the festival's moderator, with viewers invited to email their questions before the Q&A panel began.
While Berlinger's projects have been obvious comparisons for Sealey, they haven’t the only one to have given us a look into Bundy in the past. Ann Rule, who Bundy mentions in Sealey’s fim, wrote “Stranger Beside Me.” Upcoming film “American Boogeyman,” set to premiere this August, is already drawing ire from some crime audiences for using heartthrob Chad Michael Murray to portray “yet another hot Ted Bundy,” wrote the New York Post (Zac Efron previously played the role in Berlinger’s “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”). Numerous made-for-TV features and specials have promised us glimpses into Bundy's crimes, with some arguably erring on the side of sensationalism.
Sealey, however, seems to purposely, and successfully, avoid glamorizing the villain, and Luke Kirby’s portrayal of Bundy is chilling and exact. The movie adds a new layer to the Bundy rage, taking us for a cerebral ride through the darkness of human nature.
“No Man of God” will be released on Aug. 27.
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