Do we still need to tell Serial Killer stories? That question becomes more pressing with every one I see, and the arguments against continuing to tell them are more convincing. The romanticization of the criminal and their fetishized crimes, the focus on their psychology in the place of the victims and the lives that have been snuffed out—the balance feels off, out of whack. We have seen the same shift in focus in our conversations about gun violence, which seems to be in some ways where all of that sublimated toxic male rage has funneled in the two-plus decades since the serial killer’s heyday. How about instead of giving the killer notoriety we dedicate our memories to the innocent, the victimized?
Still, as long as the storyteller is smart about it, there will forever be some purpose and meaning in staring into the eyes of evil and assessing the ways in which that imagined binary of ours—of good versus evil—washes away in close-up. The singer Sufjan Stevens wrote a beautiful song about the horrors of John Wayne Gacy, singing, “In my best behavior I am really just like him.” We are all, even the ones who’ve done the worst among us, only human beings doing human things. Human violence is human. Violence is always possibly ours; we live within it, it is a part of us and it does us good to acknowledge that; burying the bad parts of ourselves does nobody any favor. Or as the serial killer Ted Bundy (Luke Kirby) puts it to the FBI profiler Bill Hagmeier (Elijah Wood) in Amber Sealey’s No Man of God: there’s nothing they’ve done that you haven’t thought about.
In No Man of God, we are held captive in small airless rooms, listening to Bundy and Hagmeier converse about such matters. Frost/Nixon-like, the film shows several conversations the two men had in real life from 1984 until Bundy’s execution in 1989. As they talk, you’re definitely going to think of every Serial Killer story you’ve seen before. Early on as a bonding experience, Bundy insists Hagmeier share some personal childhood traumas with him, and we listen to Wood tell a story that could’ve been its own Silence of the Rats. Everything else about this serial killer profiling business has previously been scoured well-over by David Fincher, not just in his recent series Mindhunter (which this film intensely resembles) but stretching back to Zodiac and then Se7en, A.K.A. the one Fincher has been apologizing for ever since. No Man of God doesn’t do anything that shatters those molds.
It does however have at its heart an unsettling performance from Kirby as the bad man in question. His resemblance to Bundy, not just physically but in speech and movement, is wildly uncanny, and somehow only more so the longer you stare at what he’s doing. You can see the surface level of how Bundy kept charming people, sure, but Kirby instills the man with a terrible gravitas, the bass-voiced tenor of an abusive parent that coerces through absence; through what he’s always about to say. He fills a room up in a way that Zac Efron, skating on mere devilish charm, never came close to in Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile a couple of years back. Kirby’s work has a genuine menace to it because you can feel an underneath, a black lake right out of sight. He brings us to the brink of Bundy’s nothingness where something terrible—a vertigo called up from the void—calls back.
For his part, Elijah Wood does an excellent job of carrying us where we need to be. He’s always steering the conversation away from big mythologizing of Bundy, of treating him as anything more than a man who allowed himself to say yes when he should have said no; to dive into that lake we all know, we all feel, within ourselves. And to the film’s great benefit Hagmeier’s making of space within himself to admit the possibility of such horrors doesn’t feel like Bundy infecting or poisoning Hagmeier’s mind, but ultimately an acceptance of the basic on-the-ground choices we make every day, actually profound in their simplicity. We can tell these nightmare stories over and over, build industries up around them, but it’s never been any more complicated than a person chose pain over its many possible opposites instead.
No Man of God made its world premiere at Tribeca Festival 2021.
Image sources (in order of posting): RLJE Films,