There have been many dramas in which actors portray legendary true-life psycho killers, and the overwhelming majority of them are less than convincing. Every so often, though, an actor — through looks, skill, and temperament — will connect to the monster he’s playing in a way that’s so uncanny it seizes and chills you. Jeremy Davies’ performance as Charles Manson in the 2004 version of “Helter Skelter” was like that — it was the definitive Manson, sinuous and seething, even greater than Steve Railsback’s celebrated portrayal. Jeremy Renner, before anyone had heard of him, played Jeffrey Dahmer in the 2002 indie gem “Dahmer,” and he was remarkable: a lonely vacant nerd of horror.
Watching Amber Sealey’s “No Man of God,” which premiered yesterday at the Tribeca Festival, there are moments when you feel that same creepy frisson watching Luke Kirby play Ted Bundy; you feel as if he becomes him. The physical resemblance is uncanny (Kirby is like Bundy’s double, with that clean-cut swarthiness and American Daniel Day-Lewis grin), but he also worms his way into the mazelike quality of Bundy’s manipulations. Kirby’s Bundy is voluble and suspicious, with a piercing look and an arrogant manner that masks his fractured identity. He keeps flirting with confessing his crimes. But is that because he feels guilty about them or because he feels proud?
For most of the movie, we’re watching FBI Special Agent Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood), one of the Bureau’s founding profilers, interview Bundy, who is seated across from him, in handcuffs, at a small metal table inside the Florida State Prison. Hagmeier wants to know what makes Bundy tick. But part of what makes Bundy tick is that Bundy won’t let anyone know; he’s the cagy guardian of his dark secrets. It’s 1985, and Bundy has been captured and convicted. He will spend the rest of his life in prison (or be executed), so his freedom is gone. But what he still has is his mystique, and for him that’s a kind of freedom. Like Manson, he’s a media celebrity: the serial killer who looked and acted like the guy next door. And that makes him, in a way, a walking metaphor. If Ted Bundy is the monster hidden by a “normal” façade, the question his existence raises is: How many people out there are capable of being Ted Bundy?
At least, that’s how sees it. Hagmaier is interviewing Bundy as part of his role in the FBI’s new profiling unit. He has been told that Bundy hates the feds, and won’t give them anything. But after he and Bundy exchange letters, Bundy agrees to talk to him. The old, vintage police interrogation techniques were about evidence, “motive,” the logistics of crime. But Hagmeier, as a profiler, wants something more. He wants an explanation, an evocation. He wants to know who Ted Bundy is. And, of course, so do we.
But have we been here too often? Two years ago, there was another drama about Bundy, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” directed by Joe Berlinger (who also put together the four-part Netflix documentary series “Confessions of a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes”), and it featured a fine performance from Zac Efron, who took us inside Bundy the ’70s American Jekyll-and-Hyde. I thought the movie was honest and effective, but there was a lot of criticism directed at it that said, in essence, that by showing us events from Bundy’s point-of-view, it was asking us to “sympathize” with him. I thought the fact that the film tried to merge his point-of-view with that of the audience was the key to its power and authenticity. Yet part of what the critics were really saying, I think, is that they’d had enough of the whole lurid fixation on serial killers, which can grow so obsessive that it threatens to turn these violent sickos into warped antiheroes.
Like a lot of people, I’ve put in my own voyeuristic time with serial-killer documentaries and serial-killer thrillers. I’ve consumed the Bundy tapes, the Dahmer tapes, the endless loops of Manson arcana, the true-crime shows about the monsters in our midst. Like so many, I’ve gorged on the drama of Hannibal Lecter — and I mean really reveled in it, since “Manhunter,” the 1986 movie that introduced Lecter on the big screen, is my favorite thriller of all time. (I think it’s even greater than “The Silence of the Lambs.”) It’s based on Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel “Red Dragon,” which was a thriller meditation on the then-exotic world of FBI profiling, and the book’s conversations between Lecter and Agent Will Graham were based, in part, on interviews given by Bundy. That’s because Bundy, like Lecter, was a killer smart enough to treat murder — at least, in his own mind — as a demonic philosophical game.
In “No Man of God,” Bundy keeps insisting that he’s not crazy, and that’s his tease, his way of saying, “You’re frightened of the me inside you.” The movie is based on audiotape recordings of the relationship that developed over several years between Bundy and Bill Hagmaeir, and it’s structured as a cat-and-mouse game. As Hagmaeir returns, year after year, to talk to Bundy, looking to uncover his hidden horror, Elijah Wood, still boyish at 40 but with an enhanced cunning, plays Hagmaeir as a devout Christian who’s willing to approach Bundy as a human being with a soul he wants to peer into. And the only way he can do that is by empathizing with him; that’s the way Bundy will let him in.
At moments, “No Man of God” could be a two-hander performed on stage. Wood and Kirby get a real communion going, one that echoes the battle of wits between Graham and Lecter in “Manhunter.” Individual moments are gripping, and Kirby’s performance puts its queasy hooks in you, but the film, overall, has a scattershot momentum until the last act, set in 1989, when Bundy is about to be executed. Will he finally admit to all he did, giving a kind of closure to the victims’ families? He‘ll reveal himself only to Hagmaier, and when he does they have the conversation that they, and the movie, have been building toward the entire time.
We’re going to hear Bundy not just confess his crimes but immerse us in their savage compulsion. He does, and what we see is that the killer inside him has never gone away; he’s as alive as ever. There is no remorse, no repentance. There is only the exultant horror of his imagination. At that moment, “No Man of God” takes us about as close as we’re going to get to “knowing” Ted Bundy. But what you may feel is that even then, you don’t know him at all, that it’s impossible to understand crimes like these from the inside. What’s more, our collective fascination with the inner lives of serial killers may, after 40 years, have begun to exhaust itself. Watching “No Man of God,” we more or less reach the outer limits of the dark revelation we’re seeking. And the revelation turns out to be a rerun.
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