What to Watch Verdict
Sealey's film removes the frequently corny cat-and-mouse drama of fake serial killer stories to show what so many of them borrowed from this unsettling real account.
💥 Sealey successfully maintains Hagmaier's belief in Bundy's guilt, which makes their eventual closeness that much more dangerous for both men.
💥 Wood gives his character an endless curiosity that eventually forces him into a unique position of responsibility with Bundy's fate.
💥 The duo's exchanges are very reminiscent of scenes in 'Silence of the Lambs' and many other serial killer movies — but then again, that's because they basically inspired all of them.
For those who may have thought The Silence of the Lambs lacked verisimilitude (at least with regard to Hannibal Lecter), No Man Of God suggests that the fictional thriller actually offered a surprising degree of realism. Effectively a feature-length excursion into the Hannibal-Clarice scenes in Thomas Harris’ best seller, Amber Sealey’s film utilizes real transcripts from conversations between serial killer Ted Bundy and FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier to showcase the very real relationships that developed as investigative organizations attempted to understand the mindset of this unique subcategory of criminal. Elijah Wood (Come to Daddy) plays the devout, curious Hagmaier opposite Luke Kirby (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) as Bundy in a battle of wills that not only set a template for Harris’ (and later, Jonathan Demme’s) fraught exchanges, but eventually formed the backbone of what law enforcement agencies know — and seek to learn — about the unwell individuals who commit atrocious crimes on a mass scale.
In 1984, Special Agent Bill Hagmaier volunteers to take Bundy’s case as the FBI ramps up its investigations of serial killers; Bundy has been in jail for almost a decade at this point and he more or less categorically refuses to speak to law enforcement, but Hagmaier’s superior officer Roger Depue (Robert Patrick) thinks the effort will be valuable if the junior agent can get even basic details about his crimes. After requesting that Hagmaier write him a letter petitioning for access, Bundy unexpectedly grants him an audience, and eventually agrees to regular visits where Hagmaier can obtain information about the serial killer mindset with regard to pending investigations. Hagmaier’s sincere curiosity serves him well, and over the next five years the two men slowly begin to develop a deeper bond — not quite a friendship, but something intimate nonetheless.
When the Florida governor decides to execute Bundy in seven days, Hagmaier recognizes that the ticking clock may incentivize the killer to disclose some of his crimes — if there’s enough time to coax the information out of him. Bundy’s attorney, Carolyn Lieberman (Aleksa Palladino), works tirelessly to save his life, eventually granting access to various law enforcement officials across the country looking for answers in murder cases he may have committed, and later, a televangelist who promises to speak to the governor on his behalf in exchange for an exclusive interview. As his own window of time with Bundy quickly evaporates, Hagmaier realizes that he must leverage his relationship with the killer in order to get him to confess; and as the two men duel over what information he can and should give — and for what reasons — Hagmaier begins to realize not only the impact that Bundy has made on his job and his life, but the responsibility he will have to take as this individual prepares to die for his crimes.
Making the most of the gobsmacking resource of Hagmaier’s recordings (and in their absence, his direct recollections), actor-turned-director Amber Sealey (How To Cheat) takes the intellectual tete-a-tete that has become a centerpiece in virtually every serial killer movie since Michael Mann’s Manhunter and renders it in shockingly authentic dimensions, not to drive a fictional plot but reveal the real character of the two individuals on each side of it. She juxtaposes the intimacy of their interactions with interludes or vignettes of period television footage, leading up to the days of Bundy’s execution, when an onslaught of media coverage chronicled the circus that erupted around his imminent death. Inside the prison facility, Hagmaier slowly wins his confidence by never asking about his crimes, instead targeting the middle distance of trying to comprehend a serial murder’s mentality, while Bundy deflects and misdirects about the events for which he was convicted, and succumbs to the compliment that the FBI would seek his “expertise” in order to locate other criminals who seem to follow his patterns of behavior.
Wood has really evolved into a fascinating actor; he could easily be cashing checks playing worried scientists spouting doomsday gobbledygook while CGI asteroids endanger earth, but he repeatedly seems to exploit the likeability or humanistic qualities of his earlier roles to test the audience’s sympathies, and here he makes us worry that a law enforcement officer can indeed get too close and learn too much about the mindset of a serial killer. The movie’s merciless containment of the conversations between the two men means we never see his wife or child, elements that could inform how he’s changed throughout his conversations with Bundy; but every time he reveals an intimate piece of information about those off screen loved ones, we worry that he has left himself vulnerable to Bundy’s incisive intellect, or worse, convinced himself that the men truly are friends.
As Bundy, it’s hard to say if Kirby has the harder or easier role; a charismatic serial killer is a character that offers an actor a lot of opportunities, but even without the real Bundy to impersonate, the imitators and caricatures that Hollywood has created over the last 35 years have made them instantly identifiable. Whether or not Bundy was truly capable of outsmarting everyone except for Hagmaier, Kirby occasionally leans too heavily on the overconfidence that he ascribes to the serial killers he looks down on (albeit ironically from inside prison). But where the movie makes the right choices (and one supposes the real people did as well) is in continuing to see Bundy for what he truly was — a dangerous murderer — and refuses to let him off the hook even as he tries to negotiate his way into a few more hours of life.
A score by Clarice Jensen dances around a bit too much in terms of more retro-contemporary synthesizer themes and some more sober acoustic compositions, but Sealey’s confident hand behind the camera builds a mesmerizing rhythm as the two men get to know one another, and time grows short on Bundy’s sentence, building pressure in between the academic speculation of their conversations about suspected, abstract or hypothetical perpetrators; the legal value to Bundy’s survival on death row; and the emotional weight of a man being brought into the blackest depths of his interview subject’s inhumanity. But as a two-hand character study and showcase for these two gifted actors, No Man Of God brings a genre frequently based in demented invention back to a very real and palpable place; certainly Hannibal Lecter remains one of the most fascinating and hypnotic embodiments of evil in cinema’s canon of serial killers, but Sealey reminds us that even geniuses sometimes borrow from somebody else’s playbook.
Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist with more than 20 years’ experience for dozens of print and online outlets, including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly and Fangoria. An obsessive soundtrack collector, sneaker aficionado and member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd currently lives in Silverlake, California with his amazing wife Julie, two cats Beatrix and Biscuit, and several thousand books, vinyl records and Blu-rays.