Movie Review: Let’s hang out in the Unabomber’s cabin with “Ted K”

Sharlto Copley takes us inside the head of infamous, murderous crank Ted Kaczynski in “Ted K,” a straightforward and yet surprisingly disturbing look at the man the FBI labeled and hunted as “the Unabomber” for some 17 years.

What’s surprising about this account isn’t his methods, his cunning and his amoral, horrifically random selection of targets. It’s how relatable the South African Copley (“District 9”) makes this monster.

The classic “dangerous, disturbed loner,” Kaczynski moved to a 120 square foot cabin he and his brother built in the mountains outside of Lincoln, Montana. A math prodigy who entered Harvard at 16, he checked out of the human race early on. In Montana, he worked odd jobs without much success or enthusiasm, hunted for meat and cadged cash off his mother and brother for years as he pioneered a version of the “off the grid” lifestyle others have emulated since.

And whatever state he moved to Montana in, the solitude and the escalating “disruptive sounds” and “destruction” of technology all around him, from oil exploration and lumbering to yahoo motocross biking and snowmobiling drove him off the deep end, vowing revenge and keeping a journal of his grudges, his plans and his bombings in a numerical code.

Director and co-writer Tony Stone built his script out of Kaczynski’s endless writings, his letters to the editor, his phone calls with his increasingly estranged and eventually alarmed family, and out of his infamous newspaper-published “manifesto.”

And Copley brings the articulate, twisted and deranged writings to life.

From the first scene, when Ted K” breaks into a mountainside chalet — busting through the wall with an axe, not through a window or door — Copley makes us forget this isn’t a documentary. Bearded, tetchy and wild-eyed, socially awkward in even the most innocuous situations, his Kaczynski must have been a trial for the locals, many of whom seem to know him and treat him as sane when they had to know that Illinois transplant wasn’t right in the head.

We see him ranting at “evil jets,” passenger and military, shooting at oil company helicopters hauling explosives to do sonic geologic prospecting for oil. As Stone plays up every disturbance to the quiet of nature, from snowmobiles to sawbills, we start to get it. And maybe we kind of see what turned this off-the-IQ charts/on-the-spectrum oddball into the ticking time bomb he became.

His turn to violence is horrific in its topicality, as we see deranged outliers all over North America arm for war and threaten their own enemies lists of grievance. “Violence,” Kaczynski notes, is condemned. But “history shows it does work.”

Stone’s film tilts us towards Ted K’s point of view as the public radio listener/bomb-maker whistles Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” when he commits his first acts of vandalism.

He was around decades before social media took the hit for some of society’s ills, but here he was in the ’70s and ’80s, declaring that he and we needed to “stop technology before it’s too late,” before it develops ways to “control our behavior.”

Stone doesn’t turn this nut into a hero or even a “mad prophet.” Like Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph, the Unabomber takes the coward’s path to revenge on perceived, unwarned “enemies” — making bombs.

There are plenty of scenes of Kaczynski ranting and over-sharing to his mother about his inability to socialize and meet a woman, and blaming her for it. We see him vehemently chew on a phone company functionary over the “thefts” their clunky pay phones in Lincoln subject him to and fail to respond to neighborly efforts at humor or a sympathy.

Despite moments of normality, when he hides his arrogance, his hair-trigger temper and his brutish sexism, we wonder how anybody could have ever given him a lift, offered him a job or let him volunteer sorting books at the local library.

Copley performance explains that. He never makes the man charming or appealing. But he humanizes this murderer, strips him of his “boogeyman” status and lets us ponder what might have been had family, neighbors, medicine or the state had enough cause or the common sense to intervene, or at least cut off the cash he needed to buy guns and gunpowder.

Rating: R for language, some sexual content and brief nudity

Cast: Sharlto Copley

Credits: Directed by Tony Stone, script by Gaddy Davis, John Rosenthal and Tony Stone. A Neon release.

Running time: 2:00

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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