A man gazes into the abyss, the abyss gazes back, and the man’s innards curdle like milk on a shimmering windowsill. The man is Bill Hagmaier. The abyss is Ted Bundy. They’re sitting together in an empty gymnasium hours before Bundy’s sitdown in the electric chair, and Hagmaier, having pursued his job as Bundy’s profiler through the late 1980s, finally gets what he’s after: A melding of minds with Bundy and a complete understanding of why Bundy murdered 30 women, and possibly more. The experience leaves Hagmaier numb. He’s responsive, not vegetative, but just aware enough that he’d probably be happier as a potato than a repository for Bundy’s sins.
The climax of Amber Sealey’s “No Man of God,” starring Luke Kirby as Bundy and Elijah Wood as Hagmaier, satisfies the latter’s curiosity as one of the FBI’s original offender profilers, a living legend in his field, while traumatizing him beyond words; the former gets to unburden his conscience the only person in the world he trusts enough to spare his bullshitting. On the other side of the screen, the audience gets to appreciate to best effect Sealey’s casting directors, Danielle Aufiero and Amber Horn, for their choices of leading men. While Kirby quietly pulls the easygoing charm that’s so central to his interpretation of Lenny Bruce on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” inside out, Wood uses his apparently perpetual youthfulness to express a transformative paralysis: Bundy exhales evil, and Hagmaier helplessly breathes it all in, eyes wide with horrified regret.
It’s a hell of a moment capping off a series of great moments between these two actors, who make up the film’s heart and soul. “No Man of God” is by nature about soullessness, of course, but Sealey’s direction isn’t without humanity because otherwise, she’d betray Hagmaier’s character and intentions. Bundy is – was – a monster. He was also a human being, which means he was complicated and would have been even if he wasn’t also a remorseless killer. Hagmaier wants to decode Bundy’s programming. He wants to know why Bundy is Bundy. “No Man of God” has a pretty good idea, as does anyone familiar with Bundy’s notoriety. Unlike recent Bundy projects (a’la 2019’s “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”), the movie couches his forbidden allure in Hagmaier’s perspective.
“No Man of God” centers on Hagmaier and how his relationship with Bundy affects him and how people on the outside see him. Isolation is a key component in Sealey’s tool belt; the most significant images in the film are typically wide shots where Hagmaier and Bundy are dwarfed by their cavernous surroundings, impressing on viewers an abiding hopelessness for both characters. Bundy is doomed to die. Nobody’s truly fussed about that, even Hagmaier. Only Bundy’s lawyer, Carolyn Lieberman (Aleksa Palladino), cares whether he lives or dies. Hers is a principled stance: She freely admits her hatred of the man as well as her distaste for the death penalty, holding Hagmaier responsible for his part in sending Bundy to his death.
Through Lieberman, the film affirms what we know and accept – Bundy’s obvious guilt – but argues that maybe frying men to death because they are guilty, even of crimes as heinous as Bundy’s, isn’t the way. No innocent characters exist in “No Man of God,” not even the people camping outside the prison eagerly waiting for Bundy’s execution the way Apple partisans wait in line for the next meager iPhone upgrade. Everyone has their hands on the switch, save Lieberman, and she’s the one representing a man who, in other circumstances, might have taken her life. It’s complicated, in other words. Sealey has no interest in complicating Bundy, exactly, though she does create space for Kirby to howl his fears about death; instead, “No Man of God” fixates on the ways Bundy complicates everyone in his orbit, especially Hagmaier.
Hagmaier’s is a lonesome existence. Sealey’s sympathy for him swells at the movie’s edges. At the end of the day, capping off a montage-cum-roll call of almost every female face appearing in the movie, all he wants is to hear his wife’s voice. He recognizes that she, like any woman who crossed Bundy’s path, could have been a victim. Frankly, he’s responsible for victimizing others just by doing his job. An early scene in the movie shows Hagmaier on the way to work, listening to Bundy interview tapes in the car with the windows down; a woman pulls up next to him, hears what’s being spoken of, and gives Hagmaier a shaken glance as he quickly rolls his windows back up. The alienation Hagmaier feels is total. What he’s doing is important, but the toll it takes on him is real.
“No Man of God” exacts that toll in Florida State Prison, where most of the film takes place. Think of the narrative in similar terms as “Jaws”: Hagmaier goes into the interview room. The interview room is tucked away in the prison. So Hagmaier goes into the prison, Bundy’s prison, whose depth only he knows. Eventually, he gives Hagmaier a lesson in serial murder bathymetry, and the knowledge irrevocably changes Hagmaier. Sealey tells his story where films like “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” tell Bundy’s as if his story requires telling. When Christian evangelical psychologist James Dobson (Christian Clemonson) conducts his famous interview with Bundy, in which the latter attempts to use the attentions of the former to shift the blame for his own actions onto society, Sealey makes a pointed statement about who is permitted to construct these narratives in the first place. Mostly it’s men with agendas.
“No Man of God” has a purpose: The truth. This isn’t a Ted Bundy movie, but rather a movie about Ted Bundy. This is a fine distinction that, at first blush, has no value. Sealey demonstrates that value assisted by Wood’s excellent performance. Hagmaier ultimately has to live with the burden of Bundy’s animus. Maybe by showing viewers that animus for what it is instead of for naughty thrills, Sealey’s film can make that burden a little lighter. If not, at least she’s given Bundy the treatment he deserves: Judgment. [B]