With the latest—though not the last—Ted Bundy biopic No Man of God, director Amber Sealey displays a marked disinterest in portraying the notorious serial killer as a sexy criminal savant. Instead, the film grapples with how Bundy (played with eerie ease by Luke Kirby) eventually comes to confess his culpability in the killings of 30 women in Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Florida before his execution—as well as the complicated relationship FBI profiler William Hagmaier (a measured Elijah Wood) forges with the reprehensible individual he is assigned to interview for the burgeoning Behavior Analysis Unit at Quantico.
Though No Man of God is a seemingly straightforward account of the final chapter of this country’s arguably most iconic serial murderer, it is also a concerted effort to dispel certain myths surrounding Bundy’s legacy. His status as an attractive, charismatic and affable individual are seldom portrayed in the film; his menacing nature, cold demeanor and remorselessness are the intended focus, with a beguiling veneer presented as much more chilling than garden-variety conniving charm. It’s clear that even Bundy himself is displeased with the narrative the media spins of him, a frustration that Hagmaier utilizes for his own personal gain. He earns Bundy’s trust by playing into his narcissistic nitpicking, immediately presenting the common misconception that Bundy is a “master of disguise” as opposed to a strikingly ordinary (and thus chameleon-like) individual. This baseline understanding of Bundy’s personal gripe with his own depiction on the part of Hagmaier is overtly framed as a means to an end—obtaining confessions that will put the victims’ families at ease—but it also works as a narrative tool which subliminally confronts the media’s sensationalist coverage of Bundy’s trial, which in turn influenced his infamy well after his execution.
Particularly when presented alongside Joe Berlinger’s 2019 Netflix film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile—adapted from the memoir of Elizabeth Kloepfer (published under the pen name Elizabeth Kendall) about her years-long relationship with Bundy, who committed his crimes under her unsuspecting nose—Sealey’s depiction of Bundy is noticeably more unflinching and unforgiving. Where the earlier film presents a quasi-sympathetic Bundy as portrayed by Zac Efron, who feels somewhat miscast with his boyish good looks and Disney Channel connections, Sealey keeps Kirby’s Bundy cleverly confined within prison walls throughout the entirety of the film; he is never freed via flashbacks or even within interpersonal conversations with anyone outside of Hagmaier. The only glimpse the audience gets of Bundy’s psyche is through his own testimony—by being forced to look into his eyes, hear his words and sparse chuckles as he recounts the rape, torture and murder of countless women, there is an instant inability to cushion oneself in the mythology that surrounds his murderous exploits and personal relationships.
Yet Sealey is still able to imbue the film with an interesting moral conundrum concerning the death penalty, an intellectual exercise that could have easily been discarded in order to fully exploit a satisfying ending culminating in Bundy’s state-sanctioned death. Though initially presented as another woman wooed by the killer’s intoxicating spell, Carolyn Lieberman (Aleksa Palladino in a role undoubtedly meant to portray Bundy’s last speculated love interest, Florida attorney Dana Weiner), confronts Hagmaier when he dismisses her tears over Bundy’s final unsuccessful plea to avoid his impending death penalty as the sorrow of a devastated lover: “I know what people say. You want to know what I think of Ted Bundy? I hate him…But murder is murder.”
Lieberman’s point is that Bundy’s execution continues to play into the mentality that created him; human life cannot be presented as something that can be taken away at another authoritative entity’s discretion. It only adds fuel to the fire. On top of that, Lieberman’s character not only faces Bundy’s rampant misogyny through offering him counsel, but challenges Hagmaier’s own ingrained sexism: “Has anyone ever told you that you need to go home to your kids?” Through portraying Bundy as a grotesque product of American misogyny—misogyny that affects most men, even the most well-intentioned—it also demystifies Bundy as a rogue individual, opting instead to interrogate the baseline prejudices most men carry around in their daily lives.
Whether Bundy’s real-life attorney (or any legal counsel of his) ever uttered these statements is certainly disputable. However, what’s clear is that No Man of God ultimately benefits from a woman helming a story about Bundy, as it provides nuance to even the ancillary female presence in the killer’s circle, particularly when he actually confessed to his deeply misogynistic crimes. Without the fodder of a whirlwind romance or the preamble courtship prior to the bludgeoning and raping of his victims, the legacy of Ted Bundy is stripped to a series of disgusting confessions in a banal, harshly-lit room. The shadows that play off of Kirby’s face even add distinctive phenotypic qualities of Bundy that almost make him appear demonic and inhuman, a stark contrast (literally) to the ‘70s-drenched stylistic flourish of Extremely Wicked. When speaking about the purported impact that pornography had in shaping him as a killer or his love of spearmint gum, there is a sinister sliminess to Kirby’s Bundy that for once feels appropriate, even when comparing his performance to Bundy’s actual interviews. Though there is certainly no moral merit to handling Bundy’s reputation with accuracy for his own self-absorbed satisfaction in the afterlife, it finally feels as if there is cognizance in depicting a rapist, murderer and necrophiliac as a figure whose very sight makes one squirm.
Though the true-crime content machine should certainly quit while it’s ahead (for the love of God, can we at least end the cutesy fetishization of the deeply misogynistic American culture that breeds more serial killers than any other nation?), more films akin to No Man of God that aim to chronicle the crimes of complicated killers would satisfy without sensationalizing. Especially when it comes to Bundy’s characterization as an effortless womanizer, focusing on his rage and hatred of women displaces any blame on hapless co-eds who should have—or even could have—known better.
Director: Amber Sealey
Writer: Kit Lesser
Stars: Elijah Wood, Luke Kirby, Robert Patrick, Aleksa Palladino
Release Date: August 27, 2021 (RLJE Films)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan