Popularity might not be the right word, but there’s been a definite uptick in interest surrounding the life and crimes of Ted Bundy over the last several years. In the last two years alone we’ve seen Netflix’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and Amazon’s Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer corner the docuseries market, while Zac Efron delivered a career-best performance that upended his established persona in Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.
If you can believe it, this week brings the release of two Bundy-centric movies within 24 hours of each other, each starring actors you wouldn’t expect as one of history’s most notorious serial killers. Former teen heartthrob Chad Michael Murray headlines Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman, which comes to select theaters on Thursday, just one day before The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel‘s Emmy winner Luke Kirby puts an altogether different spin on the infamous murderer in Amber Sealey’s No Man of God.
While the former looks like your standard VOD slasher that coincidentally happens to be based on a real-life figure, the latter is a much more meditative exploration of what could have made Ted Bundy tick, casting sensationalism to one side in order to try and strip back as many enigmatic layers as possible in an effort to get to the core of what made one man do such despicable things, and the end result is a hugely impressive showcase for both Kirby and co-star Elijah Wood, although it struggles to shake off the trappings of formula on occasion.
FBI Special Agent Bill Hagmaier is part of the bureau’s profiling team, and he offers to interview Bundy despite the fact he’s made it perfectly clear that he hates the feds, won’t talk to cops and refuses to give them any information. After exchanging a few letters, he eventually agrees to meet Hagmaier, and the majority of the film is spent watching two men talking in an interrogation room at Florida State Prison. No Man of God isn’t big on style, splashy visuals or trying to be something it’s not, but it works a treat as an intense two-hander where almost every ounce of drama, emotion, terror, fear and revelation is generated from nothing but the words being spoken.
Based on real transcripts recorded between 1984 and 1989 between Bundy and Hagmaier, it would’ve been all too easy for No Man of God to fall into a dry back-and-forth that doesn’t deliver any information we haven’t seen or heard before across a multitude of documentaries and biopics, although that’s essentially what it is. From the very second the two first meet, we know exactly where we and they both stand. Bundy still retains his mystique and the celebrity-like aura that he tries to use to his advantage, while Hagmaier is desperate to prove his worth to the FBI’s new unit by netting the biggest fish nobody’s even come close to catching before, so they each have plenty to gain and just as much to lose by pitting their wits against each other.
Given that the screenplay hails from Sinister writer and regular Scott Derrickson collaborator C. Robert Cargill operating under his Kit Lesser pseudonym, you’d be forgiven for thinking that No Man of God could be venturing into some gory territory as we revisit Bundy’s crimes for the umpteenth occasion. Instead, Lesser and director Sealey make the smartest and wisest possible choice by stripping everything back to focus almost entirely on the relationship between the death row inmate and Hagmaier.
Wood might be 40 years old, but he’s still got that boyish face that makes it look as though he hasn’t aged a day since The Lord of the Rings launched two decades ago. While he doesn’t quite bring the requisite lived-in quality to Hagmaier as a result, he’s always been a much better actor than he gets credit for, especially when he’s tackling material that you wouldn’t expect him to. That’s the case in No Man of God once again, and you find yourself becoming increasingly drawn into the conversations between the two leads as they size each other up, form a bond and eventually start to reveal a little too much about one another in terms of their circumstances and predicaments, thanks entirely to the strength of the performances of Kirby and Wood.
The cinematography is muted, the camerawork natural without becoming distracting and the script detailed and informative while avoiding the pitfalls of becoming too expositional. It’s a mystery thriller where everybody already knows the ending, but the two stars are so good that you can’t help but become engrossed. There’s nothing new or particularly earth-shattering contained within No Man of God, but it’s a riveting look at empathy and understanding viewed through the lens of one man’s quest to dig deep into what made Ted Bundy do the things that he did.