True crime has been a staple of popular culture at least since the broadsides and murder ballads which delivered chills and thrills to 16th century British readers. Ted Bundy, who raped and killed dozens of women in the 1970s (the exact number is not known, and it’s also possible that his crimes began earlier) has already been the subject of several books and films, but No Man of God, written by Kit Lesser (a pseudonym of C. Robert Cargill) and directed by Amber Sealey, offers something new: a dramatic portrayal of the real-life conversations between Bundy and FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood), which took place in the 1980s while Bundy (Luke Kirby) was on death row in Raiford Prison in Florida.
There are several advantages to a dramatic portrayal of real events, as opposed to a documentary or a wholly fictional story—you can slightly alter the way things happened, for dramatic effect; the performances of expert (and good looking) actors can enhance the viewing experience; yet you still get to evoke the special frisson that comes from seeing a story about a real-life monster who committed real crimes in the same world that we all live in.
The heart of No Man of God is two men talking to each other, so it’s fortunate that Kirby and Wood deliver a real acting tour-de-force. Kirby (whom I think of as the young movie star in the first season of Slings and Arrows, but who is probably better known to most people as Lenny Bruce on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) delivers an animated performance that keeps you guessing—is he ever sincere, or is he always playacting, running metaphorical circles around Hagmaier and enjoying the inversion of power. Wood plays Hagmaier as the ultimate straight arrow, a well-meaning, sincere man whom you worry may be out of his depth. This portrayal is aided by the fact that it’s hard to look at the actor and not see the pure-hearted Frodo Baggins. But Wood’s portrayal is complex enough that you can equally believe that he’s the one having Bundy on, as a means to keep him talking and reveal what he’s concealing. Kirby and Wood’s scenes are so compelling, in fact, that I wish there were even more of them in this movie, and less of everything else.
A movie about a serial killer raises the question of whether making so reprehensible an individual the subject of a piece of entertainment is the right thing to do—among other reasons, because it can seem like you’re rewarding the behavior by making the criminal the center of attention, rather than centering the victims. On the other hand, if you re-enact violent crimes on film, that raises the issue of exploitation, not to mention feeding the fantasies of people who might be watching because they enjoy seeing women hurt—let’s not forget there’s a whole category of exploitation cinema (“roughies”) for people who go for that sort of thing).
No Man of God has several solutions to this dilemma, each both subtle and effective. A recording of Bundy describing his horrific crimes (the screenplay is based on the transcripts of the actual conversations between Bundy and Hagmaier) is played under footage of ordinary women and children going about their everyday lives—which is exactly what Bundy’s victims were doing while he was stalking them and making plans to abduct, torture, and murder them (and in some cases, have sex with their decaying corpses and keep parts of their bodies as trophies).
That’s living while female—while you’re going about your business, perhaps even going out of your way to be helpful to someone, a man with evil in his heart may be watching and planning how to end your life in the most gruesome way possible. And that person may well get away with it over and over again, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Another sequence illustrates, in footage resembling home movies, some of the unwanted physical contact that women put up with in order to get along/not make a fuss/not be called a bitch. A third shows a young woman listening to Bundy describing his crimes, the expression on her face telling more than hearing his words ever could. | Sarah Boslaugh