More than three decades after the infamous serial killer Ted Bundy was executed in a Florida prison, he remains a subject of media fascination as the key figure in dozens of books and a wide array of TV movies, documentaries and films, including two well-made Netflix efforts from 2019: the true crime series “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” and the disturbingly effective feature film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” with Zac Efron delivering some of the best work of his career as the monstrous Bundy.
Now comes “No Man of God,” and though we’re in territory quite familiar to anyone aware of Bundy’s horrific spree of unspeakable violence in the 1970s, the captures, the escapes, the endless appeals and legal dodges that finally came to an end on a January day in 1989, director Amber Sealey and writer C. Robert Cargill (“Doctor Strange”) — credited as Kit Lesser — have delivered a unique perspective on the story. It’s told from the viewpoint of real-life FBI agent Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood), who joined the Bureau’s nascent Behavioral Science Unit in 1983 and became a groundbreaking pioneer in the field of interviewing convicted murderers and other violent criminals in an attempt to understand their processes with the goal of catching killers still on the loose.
“No Man of God” could easily be a stage production; much of the film takes place in a dark room within the bowels of the Florida State Prison, where Hagmaier sits across a small metal table from a handcuffed Ted Bundy, played with uncanny and unsettling effectiveness by Luke Kirby (Lenny Bruce in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), who not only looks like Bundy but captures his way of tilting his head and looking at you as if he’s sizing you up and always seems to be playing a game of psychological chess with his interviewer. At first, Bundy toys with Hagmaier, but the steady, low-key FBI man keeps focused on the task at hand — though he does find himself becoming empathetic to a point, simply by virtue of the fact he’s spending so much time with someone who keeps reminding him they’re both human beings, though they couldn’t have taken more different paths to get to this place at this point in time.
Even as Hagmaier forms a bond with Bundy and Bundy begins to open up about his methodology and the number of crimes he committed, director Sealey does an expert job of reminding us of the pure evil lurking within Bundy — not through graphic representations of his crimes, but through the eyes of young women on the periphery, e.g., an office assistant at the Bureau overhearing Hagmaier and his boss (Robert Patrick) discussing Hagmaeir’s visits with Bundy, a motorist who pulls up next to Hagmaier and hears a recording of Bundy discussing the murders, and a TV production assistant whose face becomes frozen in fear and dread as Bundy casually describes his crimes during an interview.
Elijah Wood looks like he hasn’t aged a day since the first “Lord of the Rings” movie 20 years ago, but that youthful look works for his portrayal of Hagmaier, a straight-living family man who was practically a rookie with the FBI but had already started building the skill set that would make him the stuff of legend. With much of the dialogue based on the actual conversations between killer and profiler, and Wood and Kirby turning in stellar work, “No Man of God” feels memorably, sometimes chillingly, real.