No Man of God. 2021. Directed by Amber Sealey. Screenplay by Kit Lesser.
Starring Elijah Wood, Luke Kirby, Robert Patrick, Aleksa Palladino, & Christian Clemenson.
Not Rated / 100 minutes
Biography / Crime / Drama / Mystery
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains SPOILERS!
We’ve had enough films about Ted Bundy already. Yet Amber Sealey’s No Man of God—penned by C. Robert Cargill under the pseudonym Kit Lesser—manages to cover ground that other films about Bundy have largely left untouched. Sealey’s film looks at the corrosiveness of coming into contact with Bundy through the experiences of Bill Hagmaier—an FBI agent tasked with talking to Bundy in the lead-up to the serial killer’s looming execution starting in 1985 and ending in 1989 after Ted’s death. At the same time, the film explores this through the context of the death penalty, begging questions about moral relativism and what we’re prepared to deem a necessary, institutional part of a so-called civilised society.
No Man of God picks up with Agent Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) after Bundy’s (Luke Kirby) execution, as the infamous killer’s shadow lingers over him. We jump back to Hagmaier first meeting Bundy, and we witness the progress of their relationship over the course of four years. Bill is initially a timid family man. As he becomes closer to Bundy, who starts to see him as a friend, he feels himself change, even if only slightly. By the end of Bill’s relationship with Ted he’s come to understand the latter’s terrifying mind, and likewise discovered how human Bundy was beneath the monstrosity.
No Man of God never shies away from the uncomfortable, at times banal humanity of Ted Bundy to deconstruct the “myths and misunderstandings” about the serial killer’s persona which have been built up for decades throughout the landscape of American pop culture, from TV to film to literature. We see Bundy’s banality in the way he recounts hideous acts of violence, especially sexual violence, like he’s talking about going to shop for groceries. The most telling moments depicting Bundy as human involve his crimes. First, there’s a strange bashfulness when it comes to Ted openly talking about killing the twelve-year-old girl; in his psychopathy he was still capable of recognising the deeply taboo nature of his crimes against the girl. Later, Ted shows a similar bashfulness when he’s purposefully shying away from giving explicit details of a murder to a man who was potentially romantically involved with the victim.
These scenes express Bundy’s humanity, even though it’s difficult to reconcile any sort of human emotion with his gruesome crimes against women. It’s necessary to see these instances, and feel them, because they refuse to let us categorise Ted as an inhuman monster; if only for an occasional moment, we forget the handsome man talking about brutal murder is, in fact, the murderer, and we recognise he could be anybody.
As Ted tells Bill: “You could be that guy… if things were different.”
Ted was smart, but he wasn’t smart enough to understand how much he revealed of himself. Most documentaries and films about Bundy focus on the misconception he was a genius; he was smart, in terms of his comprehension of the law and a relatively significant grasp on his own psychology, as well as the psychology of other killers like him. Yet Ted continuously revealed more about himself than he intended in certain moments, like in the film when he says the state is trying to “kill my mother‘s son” or when he, facing the inevitability of his execution, remarks he needs to call his mother; he barely, if ever, mentions his mother in his conversations with Bill, so this later focus on her reveals so much more about him. The film never gets into the fact Ted believed his mother was his sister for years, probably so as not to play into Bundy’s scapegoating. Although the mentions Ted makes, late in the film, about his mother heavily suggest the issues he had with her, as well as his love for her, lasted until the end. It isn’t only Ted mentioning his mother that speaks volumes. He tells Bill: “You can‘t bullshit a bullshitter.” Ted presents himself as honest and insightful, though during this scene he admits to his own pathological lying, at the same time gloating about his ability to control peoples’ perceptions with an educated psychopathy. Bundy may not have known how much of himself he revealed inadvertently to Hagmaier; one thing he did understand very well was the power of his words.
Within a film centring on Ted Bundy there’s a compelling critique related to true crime, as true in the 1980s as it remains today. When Bill talks to Bundy about writing books, the latter mentions the “baser desires of the book–buying public” and that readers wanted all the gory details because “they do want to be titillated.” In an era of true crime podcasts and endless true crime Netflix miniseries’, No Man of God reserves strong criticism of true crime and those who consume it, using Bundy himself to send the message. Ted also addresses Ann Rule and her book The Stranger Beside Me, claiming he didn’t know Rule outside of work. While we’ll never know if this is truth it does bring up concerns about how people come out of the woodwork when a serial killer’s identity is discovered, each of them trying to get a piece of the infamy and publicity, many of whom build long, successful careers off the back of their supposed relationship with a killer. Even if Rule and Bundy were friends, and Ted was only trying to deflect from Rule’s potential revelations about him, the fact people who knew murderers write books, do interviews, and appear on television to make money off those relationships is a twisted aspect of contemporary capitalism.
Above all else the film attempts to illustrate the corrosive influence of Bundy on Hagmaier, and in doing so questions the moral relativism Hagmaier and other religious people engage in when it comes to the realities of capital punishment. Bill’s Christianity is on the periphery in No Man of God; he doesn’t actively seem to practice much in the way of Christian ritual, other than keeping a crucifix hanging from his rearview mirror. When it comes down to moral values it seems Bill sticks closely to Christianity, straying into moral relativism, believing that the death penalty is somehow righteous in comparison with Ted’s crimes. One perfectly ironic scene shows George H.W. Bush on television, beginning his presidency “with a prayer,” before he starts a term as POTUS that is decidedly ungodly. More perfect than that is the final moment where we see Bill standing in front of the American flag and a plaque with America the Beautiful on it, while outside the Florida prison masses of people cheer and sing in anticipation of Bundy’s state execution. Is the joy people feel at an execution actually different from the pleasure a serial killer takes in killing his victim?
What’s most intriguing to me personally is seeing the way Bill’s altered over the years, going from someone who has trouble looking at crime scene photos to playing Bundy’s graphic tapes in his car on the morning commute to work. An impressive scene that shows Bill starting to understand Bundy’s humanity is when Ted takes him ‘fishing’ by going deep into detail about one of his murders, and we see Bill saying some of the words himself in unison with Ted, having visions of everyday women he’s seen as if he’s stalking them. It isn’t so much that Bill’s actually changed fundamentally, it’s that, by the end of the film, he comes to a place where he starts to comprehend that Ted’s a regular human being who’s simply done terrible, unforgivable things, and that capital punishment is just another way for people to continue doing nasty things to each other.
No Man of God works to de-romanticise Bundy, yet also never loses sight of Bundy’s humanity—an important thing we must remember when it comes to media focused on serial killers and mass murderers. Like Bundy himself states at one point, once we start using words like monster we effectively begin to forget that murder, rape, and other horrors are committed not by monsters but by men who are flesh and blood human beings. If we force these crimes onto monsters, rather than admitting to their place amongst human nature, we’re engaging in the same kind of scapegoating as Bundy when he blamed pornography.
It’s useless to ignore the disturbing humanity of Bundy’s crimes, and it’s just as damaging to forget that as it is to romanticise him as a psychopathic mastermind. In the end, Bundy was a wretched specimen of a man, as human as anybody else, and men are the ones who first birthed monstrosity into the world. Is the electric chair not monstrous? What about lethal injection? And are we as a society less monstrous than killers like Bundy because the state violence we exert upon them is somehow justified by their actions? No Man of God is about Ted Bundy and the criminal justice system as a whole; it’s also about us and the collective stories we tell ourselves as a society.
No Man of God is available in theatres, on demand, and on digital August 27th, 2021.