Our endless fascination with “Lady Killer” Ted Bundy means we’ve seen a lot of handsome look-alikes play him on the screen, from Mark Harmon and Cary Elwes to Zac Efron, each taking a shot at a mass-murderer with cover boy looks, the “sexy” serial killer with the charismatic smile.
With “No Man of God,” actor Luke Kirby gives us the definitive Bundy — arrogant, articulate, devious and delusional. Kirby (Lenny Bruce in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) simmers and snaps, purrs and seduces, and yet never for a minute lets us forget who and what he is. This is Bundy without the “glamour,” a “monster” hellbent on insisting that “‘Normal‘ people kill people,” and that’s all he is.
“No Man of God” is a “True Story” treatment of Bundy’s last days. It’s set against the birth of FBI and police “profiling,” with a pioneer of that trade, William “Bill” Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) interviewing Bundy over the final years before the serial killer was executed in Starke, Florida’s Raiford Prison.
Actress-turned-director Amber Sealey and screenwriter Kit Lesser (aka C. Robert Cargill, who wrote “Sinister” and had a hand in “Doctor Strange”) give us a standard, playlike two-hander, a “cat and mouse” movie of interviews/interrogations, with each participant trying to get into the other’s head.
Snippets of news coverage of the crimes and the baying-for-blood execution mob that showed up in 1989 (many in camo, even then) are woven into a story about research and “remorse.”
Wood’s Hagmaeir is first seen on his knees, praying. When he meets Bundy, whom his FBI BSU (Behavioral Science Unit) boss (Robert Patrick) and the skeptical prison warden (W. Earl Brown) are sure won’t talk, he has one sale to make.
“I’m not here looking for evidence. I’m looking for understanding.”
For “profiling” to work, its practitioners need to know the sort of person they’re looking for –habits, lifestyle and psychological (family) background.
Casting Wood pays dividends straight away, as he plays up Hagmaier’s non-threatening curiosity, his deference and well-mannered solicitousness, and his piety. He’s just the sort of guy Bundy would figure his silky seduction and flashes of fury would intimidate.
Kirby’s Bundy veers from aloof contempt about “liars in cheap suits on government salaries” to calling Hagmaeir his “friend” over the course of four years of interviews.
The conversations with the convicted murderer, ostensibly aimed at getting Bundy’s insights on the “Green River Killer,” still at large at the time, range from “Silence of the Lambs” analytical to “Capote” confessional.
“Do you have any idea what a spree like this would take out of you?” Bundy wonders, laying out his “profile” of the elusive Washington state murderer of sex workers and runaways. He’s forever trying to connect his married, father of a little boy interrogator to himself, a “normal” person capable of doing the most heinous things.
“I’m tired of people saying I’m crazy,” Bundy fumes.
Hagmaier is tasked with listening, recording and debating Bundy, hiding his hand, only occasionally showing off his own profiling skills, more as a way of establishing a professional rapport, convincing him that they’re intellectual equals.
Our leads have a toe-to-toe intensity that clicks in many scenes. Wood and Kirby are well-matched, with Kirby giving us the superiority complex that generations of post-Bundy Hollywood serial killers have affected, and Wood showing just how troubling this assignment becomes, an FBI agent feigning professionalism as he quakes at the heartbreaking details of Bundy’s crimes.
A secondary villain, the smug religious opportunist Dr. James Dobson (Christian Clemenson), is introduced late. He finagled a last hours interview with Bundy where we see him gullibly fed a load of codswallop by Bundy about the influence of “soft-core porn” on his psyche as Hagmaeir’s eyes widen with furious incredulity.
Aleksa Palladino gives sharp edges to Bundy’s defense attorney (her name changed here), and Patrick serves up his best “authority figure.”
Sealey (“No Light and No Land Anywhere”) keeps her camera tight, sometimes shooting from low angles to underscore the seeming power imbalance in the conversations.
She picks up not just actual crime victims, seen in still shot montages mixed with home movies and news footage, but every young woman whom either man comes in contact with, in or out of prison, viewed as Bundy would eyeball them — as potential prey, someone who might fall under the “Lady Killer’s” spell, if only for a moment.
With so many Bundy films and TV series out there, “No Man of God” stands out by Kirby capturing not just the vanity and egoism, but the stark “banality of evil” that strips the “glamour” off a creep who lured women into assorted stolen Volkswagens, assaulted and killed them, rarely in that order.
Rating: unrated, discussions of graphic violence, profanity
Cast: Elijah Wood, Luke Kirby, Aleksa Palladino and Robert Patrick
Credits: Directed by Amber Sealey, scripted by Kit Lesser. An RLJE release.
Running time: 1:41