Frightfest presents No Man of God; book festival tickets here
No Man of God is released on digital platforms on 13th September and Special Edition Blu-ray on 25th October
There has been no shortage over recent years of films and documentaries exploring the vicious serial murders of Ted Bundy. We have listened to his haunting tapes via Netflix and witnessed his magnetism and deadly charm in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. But, as with many serial killer films and documentaries, one thing consistently leaves a bad taste in the mouth; a media obsession with Bundy that only plays to the drive for celebrity status surrounding his life. Each movie and tv outing only adding to a media obsession with his complex character and horrendous crimes.
One could argue that the dark celebrity status Bundy sought in life has, in fact, only strengthened since his execution. Therefore, I approach any new Bundy inspired film with a sense of trepidation. After all, will it merely add to a catalogue of work focused solely on his story? Or will it finally attempt to deal with the psychological drive behind his murders? Thankfully, Amber Sealey’s fact-based, No Man of God largely opts to explore the latter. Her mission, to delve into the psychology of Bundy’s manipulative persona during the final years of his life on death row. His relationship with a psychological profiler and FBI analyst, Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood), taking centre stage in an electric, theatrical chamber piece.
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Make no mistake, while Luke Kirby’s performance as Bundy is one of the most realistic and complex I have ever seen on screen, this is very much Hagmaier’s story. His role as a new criminal psychology profiler keen to gain Bundy’s confession full of tension, nail-biting discussion and personal risk. Sealey opts to focus on themes that many who have never worked in prisons may struggle to comprehend. Including the reality that many of those who commit horrendous crimes are not the mad, raging psychopaths we see in films, but measured, intelligent, manipulative everyday folk.
These are people we may see every day at the local supermarket or say hello to as we walk our dogs in the morning. But, these rare individuals thrive on control, and they know how to gain the trust of others. In truth, this fact is much scarier than the killers we imagine, highlighting how flawed our notions of trust and decency can be.
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Of course, once someone is convicted, we are all quick to try and cover this fact by saying, “I always knew there was something strange about him”. But in truth, this is a mere coping mechanism, the facts too complex for us to conceive. Here the psychology of crime is involved, imperfect and challenging to unpick, and sometimes it’s based purely on something deep, dark and buried that will never truly see the light of day. But how do you demonstrate this complexity on-screen when exploring a character like Bundy, who has himself become a magnet of folklore, fact and fiction. For Sealey and screenwriter Kit Lesser, the answer lies in Hagmaier’s interviews with Bundy in the years before his execution. Discussions that enabled both men to get inside the other’s head.
Hagmaier and Bundy’s interviews with no more than a table between them carry an intense power. The performances of Wood and Kirby, utterly electric as we watch two psychology graduates spa and earn each other’s trust. Kirby’s Bundy initially toying with Wood’s Hagmaier like a cat with a mouse until he realises the mouse also has claws. Here, Bundy’s gradual acceptance of Hagmaier’s social and psychological intelligence is compelling. Meanwhile, Woods Hagmaier never shies away from displaying the emotional turmoil his job creates as he delves further and further into Bundy’s persona and the driving force behind his actions. Here, both Wood and Kirby’s performances are electric, so much so that it’s almost impossible to take your eyes away from the screen.
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Sealey’s choice of natural breaks in the drama is also inspired. Here she alternates between archival footage of the world in which the film is set and dark and eerie montages that reflect Hagmaier’s thoughts as he attempts to piece together Bundy’s actions. However, despite the sheer power of No Man of God’s performances and artistry, time consistently acts as the film’s biggest flaw. The need to keep within a standard runtime, ultimately detrimental to the complexity of the themes Sealey wishes to portray. For example, Hagmaier’s faith feels under-explored due to time restrictions, particularly the interface between his psychological work and religious beliefs. Equally, the confession of Bundy and his subsequent interviews with local state police often feel rushed. Never allowing us the time to witness Bundy’s ability to manipulate and deceive right up to his execution.
However, despite these minor flaws, No Man of God is utterly riveting, incredibly complex and beautifully performed. Here Bundy and his persona are secondary to the importance of psychological profiling in crime prevention and detection and those who pioneered its use. Does it bring anything new to the table? Yes, it highlights that real men and women commit horrendous acts of violence. They are not demonic, they do not have glowing red eyes, and they are not mad. They are instead manipulative, intelligent, often pleasant and always cunning. This may be uncomfortable for some, but thankfully we have people like Bill around the world who delve into the minds of killers, so we don’t have to.