Many movies endeavor to get inside the mind of a maniac, but “Ted K” goes straight to the source. Director Tony Stone’s chilling, immersive, and sometimes aimless portrait of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski draws on some 25,000 words of rambling diary entries from the lonely cabin-dweller, who raged against society from his secluded Montana cabin until his 1996 arrest. With a harrowing, disheveled Sharlto Copley at its center, the haunting, ambling narrative spends its entire unnerving runtime trapped inside Kaczynski’s head, where his disdain for technological progress and environmental destruction builds from small-scale sabotage to some of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.
Between 1978 and 1995, Kaczynski’s homemade bombs resulted in an assortment of horrible injuries and three deaths, with his targets ranging from an airline executive to a lobbyist. There’s no excuse for this behavior, and though the movie doesn’t try to make one, it gets close to his mindset. Like “Joker” without the exuberant blockbuster sheen, “Ted K” dares to come within striking distance of empathy for its maniacal subject, rooting his festering resentment in profound loneliness and alienation. It’s a rather unsophisticated view of a subject documented at great length over the last 25 years, but Copley — who also serves as producer — brings such a credible blend of white male fragility and violent frustration to the performance that he often transcends the restraints of the material, which doesn’t always cohere, but retains an eerie topicality after all these years.
Stone, who directed from a screenplay he co-wrote with Gaddy Davis and John Rosenthal, has clearly drawn on his experience with the documentary “Peter and the Farm” (in which an aging, socially maladroit Vermont farmer plots his suicide) to construct an absorbing visual tone poem more committed to the nuances of Kaczynski’s slow-burn insanity than any broader narrative framework. An opening crawl explains the gist of Kaczynski’s tragic story: a math genius who went to Harvard at 16, he eventually resorted to a proto-anarchistic view of society and retreated to rural Montana to live off the land. Rather than tracing Kaczynski’s tragic descent into madness, the movie lingers in its final, deadly form, not searching for answers so much as bearing witness to the terrible fact of its existence.
Which begs the question: What’s the point? That question hangs at the center of “Ted K” as an intriguing provocation, and begs daring viewers to look deep into Copley’s face for answers. The movie was shot on the same vacant, snowy landscape where Kaczynski lived, as a bearded Copley roams the wilderness, growing increasingly furious with the impact of deforestation and air pollution as jet planes and nearby industrial explosions ruin his tranquil surroundings. Adopting Kaczynski’s thick, nasally Philadelphia accent, Copley muses on the circumstances in constant voiceover as he wanders from furious typewriter sessions to casing the scenes of his crimes. “I act merely for my desire for revenge,” he proclaims, while raging against the “reckless ride into the unknown” that modern technology represents.
As much as Kaczynski’s ire speaks to a precise form of modern-day capitalist anger, he’s not the most sophisticated psychopath. No measure of literary asides can deepen the sense that his lunacy stems from a routine dissatisfaction with a society indifferent to his concerns. Given its minimalist approach, “Ted K” is often hamstrung by the limitations of its material. To compensate, the screenwriters shoehorn in a contrived imaginary romantic companion (Amber Rose Mason) — again, the “Joker” comparisons are unmistakable — along with extensive sequences that find Kaczynski engaged in prolonged, snarling one-sided phone calls with his estranged brother (who eventually tipped off the FBI). These scenes are about as instructive as Kaczynski’s Wikipedia page.
The movie works on steadier ground as a pure mood piece, with cinematographer Nathan Corbin’s stunning outdoor scenery and a thundering electronic score by Benjamin John Power (aka Blanck Mass) contributing to a grand, solitary epic, the kind of high-stakes drama Kaczynski undoubtedly imagined himself in. Though some of its bigger music cues feel a touch on-the-nose (in particular, “Mr. Lonely,” with the lyrics to Alice In Chains’ “Rooster” practically explaining Kaczynski’s internal monologue), it’s easy to imagine that the man would have seen himself in somewhat heavy-handed terms as he taunted the FBI and mainstream media through anonymous letters explaining his deeds.
Stone follows Kaczynski through a series of bombings, using the restraints of a visibly low-budget production in its favor by staying close to its subject’s face and interspersing the occasional news reports. Mostly, though, his rickety wooden cabin provides a centerpiece for the drama as Kaczynski begins to view himself as both prophet of doom and, well, a doomed prophet. An entrancing nightmare scene finds the gravity of his small home inverting around him as he escapes out the window, the entire logic of his plans threatening to collapse on top of him.
And of course, it does that, though Kaczynski’s eventual arrest and imprisonment arrives as an afterthought. As with “Joker,” the movie commits to staying within the mania of its anti-hero until the very end, even mustering a willingness to dig into the darkness and find some measure of somber beauty in the visions of peace he occasionally finds in the forest. Tonally, “Ted K” bears a strong resemblance to the elegant Americana in Tim Sutton’s work (“Dark Night,” “Memphis”), which pairs documentary naturalism with the poetry of lost souls in its midst.
Here, that’s the essence of Kaczynski, a character struggling to find his place in a vast universe indifferent to his problems. It’s a fascinating gamble for Copley, an actor who often seems eager to push beyond the boundaries of more conventional mainstream projects with visceral intensity. He finds a different sort out of outlet in “Ted K,” though there’s just enough complexity to his screen presence to suggest he could’ve gone even further with a bigger canvas. As it stands, “Ted K” amounts to a fragmented set of moments, many of them quite disturbing, and some them quite sad. But the half-baked quality of the big picture leads to the conclusion that it may be impossible to ever fully comprehend the motivating factors that led to Kaczynski’s fate — and perhaps that’s how it belongs.
“Ted K” premiered at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.