Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. RLJE Films releases the film in theaters on Friday, August 27.
Shocking revelations aren’t in short supply in Amber Sealey’s fact-based “No Man of God,” but at least one remains hard to shake, both for the audience and the onscreen character at the receiving end of the information. During one of their earliest meetings, serial killer Ted Bundy (Luke Kirby) tells FBI analyst Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) the closest thing that might amount to an ethos for the murderer and rapist: “normal people kill people.” For Hagmaier, dispatched to interview Bundy as part of the FBI’s then-fledgling criminal profiling division, it’s the sort of admission that seems destined to derail him, both personally and professionally.
Instead, in Sealey’s often fascinating and frequently uneven “No Man of God,” it serves as a touchstone, an impossible-to-kick idea that torments both Bill and Ted, a concept that holds together the film even when it threatens to shake loose. While both Ted Bundy’s hideous story and the early days of the FBI profiling program make for well-trod onscreen material — from “Mindhunter” to “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” to “Falling for a Killer” and “The Ted Bundy Tapes,” and those are just the recent titles — Kit Lesser’s screenplay opts to carve out a specific piece of the story and interrogate it on fresh terms.
Spanning the final years of Ted Bundy’s life, “No Man of God” weaves an artful, uneasy picture of the bond that formed between the killer and the man who hoped to simply understand his mindset. The opening credits bill “No Man of God” as “inspired by FBI transcripts, recordings, and the recollections of Bill Hagmaier,” hinting at a film rooted in both fact and emotion, and Sealey seems intent on bridging that gap, even if it means occasionally pulling away from the powerhouse performances at its core.
Young, chipper Bill is new to the profiling team, and when his boss opens up a fresh batch of potential subjects to interrogate after some early successes elsewhere, the pious young husband and father goes for Bundy. No one else wants him — “he hates the feds,” Bill is told repeatedly — but Bill didn’t get into this line of work because it was easy. Even early on, Ted is pulling the strings: he won’t talk to Bill until he writes him a letter. Bill can’t help but laugh at his start: “Dear Mr. Bundy.” Grace moments like that punctuate Wood’s performance as a gentle, industrious man with his own demons. Tell a guy like Bill Hagmaier that “normal people kill people,” and you’re doing some serious damage. Ted will do some serious damage.
Kirby plays his Ted Bundy with a creepy calm that easily moves between soothing and wholly unnerving. Bill eventually passes whatever tests Ted has set in his letters, and the killer acquiesces to meet in the Florida prison where he is spending what will be his last days on Earth. Over the course of a few years, the pair, well, they sort of bond, and that’s just as uncomfortable for them as it is for the audience. It would make for a stellar stage play, really, and in the moments when it’s just Bill and Ted facing off in a chilly prison interrogation room, it almost feels that way. Both Wood and Kirby are excellent, with the former providing emotional dimension to a less flashy character and the latter making (again, an oft-dramatized) part very much his own.
But Sealey has bigger aspirations, and many of them work. Her filmmaking is stylish and informative even in the film’s opening moments, as it tracks between archival footage of the world in which the film is set (happy people strolling streets, commercials, glossy stuff) and an understandably tense Bill getting ready for work, eventually set to Ted’s own recorded words. The archival footage will reoccur, mostly to diminishing returns, and the film loses much of its propulsion when it strays from the Bill and Ted show. Sealey’s more restrained choices prove to be most effective, like her resistance to showing Bill’s family, or how she steadily turns the attention from a blathering Ted to a shocked bystander during a key interview.
A fussy final act, which finds an unnerved Ted attempting to stave off his execution as Bill is drawn further into his web (alongside Aleksa Palladino as Bundy’s lawyer Carolyn Lieberman, a small role the actress makes her own), feels scattered in a way the rest of the film does not. That frenetic energy speaks to the truth of the time, but it feels pulled from a different, less effective version of this story, one we’ve seen before. Still, by its fraught final moments, in which Ted finally bares all to a shellshocked Bill (Kirby has simply never been better than during this horrific final monologue), Sealey brings the attention back to where it belongs: on an electric duo, bonded by terrible, impenetrable truths that would make any “normal” person shudder.
“No Man of God” premiered in the Spotlight Narrative section of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. RLJE Films will release it in theaters this August.