REVIEW: No Man of God [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 100 minutes
    Release Date: August 27th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: RLJE Films
    Director(s): Amber Sealey
    Writer(s): Kit Lesser

This is purely academic.

What separates Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) from Ted Bundy (Luke Kirby)? Ask a lot of people and they’ll say mental stability. But isn’t that just a cop-out? Isn’t that absolving serial rapists and murderers of their actions because they “couldn’t help themselves?” The real answer skews less towards compulsion than it does abstention. We’ve all thought about hurting people we don’t like, but that’s where our rage ends. We punch pillows, scream in the shower, and tailgate transgressors until our desire for vengeance is satisfied. Bundy (and too many others) escalate matters. They narcissistically position themselves at the top of a manufactured power system with their victim and follow through where we don’t. It’s a choice. We move on and forget. They obsess and inevitably act.

I wrote the word “don’t” rather than “can’t” because we all could kill. If forced during war or inside a situation demanding self-defense—we’ll fight to survive, no matter the cost. We won’t do it for sport, however, because we value society’s rules (or, for believers, God’s rules) above the anarchy of living in a 24/365 state of The Purge. But what about those of us whose job it is to think like someone who does? What about the so-called FBI profiler who willingly gets into the headspace of a monster to understand what makes them tick so they can either catch him/her or someone similar? That person, like the murderers themselves, knows how to get away with it. And they know how to hide in plain sight.

It’s a truth that has fascinated pop culture for quite some time via characters like Dexter Morgan and Hannibal Lecter showing the vicarious thrill of playing with that razor-thin division. Beyond the literary pages of fiction, however, lies the relationship struck by the aforementioned Hagmaier and Bundy. The former found himself as one of five of the FBI’s original profilers tasked to interview violent serial offenders to help better understand their psyche. The latter was the maniac who raped and murdered over thirty girls/women throughout the United States. Bundy (holding his own psychology degree) famously hated federal agents, but eventually agreed to speak with Bill because he seemed different. Where everyone else wanted to use Ted as a career touchstone, Hagmaier was genuinely driven by curiosity.

Inspired by Hagmaier’s transcripts and accounts of these meetings, Kit Lesser (a pseudonym for C. Robert Cargill) wrote No Man of God as a chamber piece between two sides of the same coin. One chose to use his knowledge to kill. The other used it to protect innocents. Could they have been in opposite chairs in another life? Sure. As such, the producers would have been doing a grave disservice by letting yet another man into the equation to bring it to life. Director Amber Sealey knew this too when providing her pitch. This film couldn’t devolve into a glorification of Bundy or of Hagmaier (as if men should be applauded for merely not letting their patriarchal rule drive them to kill women). It needed to be more.

And she accomplishes that goal by often letting the women in the background become our focal point to show how this country was built to keep them there—always uncertain of whether the man in front of them is a Ted or Bill. We see it in the prologue after Hagmaier gets dressed to drive to work with the window down while playing one of the tapes he recorded of Bundy talking about how he would have stalked his “suspected” victims. A woman in the car next to him hears it and can’t help turning to look and clock Bill in a way that marks him as someone to avoid. Let’s face it: good or bad, a person casually listening to those words is guilty until proven otherwise.

The way Sealey handles the interviews is interesting too. These men are always shown as equals without ever humanizing Bundy in a way that lessens his monstrousness or vilifying Hagmaier in a way that renders him less of a hero who helped put countless criminals behind bars before retiring as chief of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crimes. They’re equals insofar as their education, privilege, and entitlement beyond what they each decided to use those things to become. We watch Bill be unassuming to a fault while Bundy becomes unassuming with intent. We can see the difference because we have watched them in other scenes that provide context to their motives, but they’d ultimately look the same to anyone walking down the street.

While we can imagine Hannibal Lecter pushing Will Graham to his breaking point, we don’t ever think Bundy will do the same to Hagmaier. And rather than try, Sealey and Lesser instead deliver a climax that lays bare who these men are with Ted taking Bill “underwater” to relive a kill that leaves the latter in tears. That is the difference and yet it’s not transparently exposed until they’re both on the cusp of said brutality. We therefore only know who is willing to keep going after they’ve confronted that moment of truth. Women simply don’t have the time to wait that long. Because who’s to say the person who says “No” today won’t say “Yes” tomorrow? Even Bundy stopped himself at first. He “worked up to it.”

No Man of God becomes a fascinating character study as a result because it refuses to caricaturize or lionize. It lets us behind the façade of television appearances to see Bundy’s insecurities and fears when faced with his mortality as well as Hagmaier’s genuine empathy stripped of compassion. Bill probably wouldn’t call Ted a friend like he does, but there’s definitely a mutual sense of respect if for no other reason than the former being a man of God. It doesn’t make him oppose the death penalty, but it does let him treat Bundy with pragmatism rather than emotion. That too is a privilege, though. Just look at Ted’s lawyer Carolyn (Aleksa Palladino) to see the difference. She must pretend not to hate him. Bill truly might not.

It’s another bit of duality amongst many. In the end, even Bill is using Bundy even if he does so without having to try. Ted just happens to like what he’s being used for in that context above the others. Wood is very good in his role as the calm, honest man who knows his limits and won’t suffer fools, but Kirby steals the show in many ways because of how he must turn on a dime to “perform” for whoever is in the room. Since he lets himself be used, he’s also inevitably getting something in the deal. With Carolyn it’s the chance of avoiding the chair. With Bill it’s the approximation of a confidant absent a shared history with which to judge him against.

[1] Luke Kirby as Ted Bundy in the drama/thriller, NO MAN OF GOD, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.
[2] Elijah Wood as Bill Hagmaier in the drama/thriller, NO MAN OF GOD, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.
[3] Robert Patrick as Roger Depue in the drama/thriller, NO MAN OF GOD, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

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