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Sharlto Copley Shines in 'Ted K,' a Nuanced But Critical Take on The Late Unabomber

By Alberto Cox Délano | Film | June 14, 2023 |

By Alberto Cox Délano | Film | June 14, 2023 |


Talk about being late to a party. This movie premiered in February last year, and I had been putting off reviewing it month after month. Well, now that Ted Kaczynski died in prison last Saturday, at age 81, from an apparent suicide while dealing with late-stage cancer, it seems like there’s no better time to cash in on those trending search words.

Should we consider Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski a fascinating guy? He is a bit of a forgotten relic from a much simpler (and very ’90s) and “better” period in US history. Unlike many of the other late 20th-century psychopaths that have become sources of obsession and/or revenue streams for Ryan Murphy, he was an actual mad genius (a Math PhD. from Harvard), a social outcast secluded in a cabin in the Montana wilderness, sending elaborate package bombs to universities, corporate headquarters, computer stores, and private homes. Over the course of 17 years, he triggered what was, at the time, the biggest manhunt in the history of the FBI and managed to strong-arm The Washington Post into publishing his pseudo eco-anarchist manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future. Meanwhile, the other infamous psychopaths from that era mostly stuck to killing people the police never cared about, like sex workers and/or Queer people. They were just policy failures.

It would be tempting, in this day and age, to revisit the figure of Ted Kaczynski as some sort of radical pioneer in the defense of the environment. There is an open debate on whether a certain level of radicalism will be necessary in combating the agents causing climate change, even that fucking idiot Elon “Space Karen” Musk tried to devil’s advocate for him. Which should be enough of a red flag for everyone to discard any “he had a point” arguments. And Ted K is here to show us that Kaczynski was, first and foremost, just a pathetic nutjob.

Ted K is directed and co-written by Tony Stone, co-owner of the arts space Basilica Hudson, and whose previous work was the acclaimed documentary Peter and the Farm, also centered on a hermit (but a good person). He brings a contemplative, multimedia arts sensibility that could have easily wandered into cheap exploitation or, worse still, an unwitting endorsement. Stone could’ve easily turned the scenes of Kaczynski wandering around Montana’s wilderness into Walmart Malick, but instead, he restrains himself to just showing the Unabomber as someone who is more lost than trying to find himself. Someone who cannot truly find communion in nature because he is just too tethered to the artificial world beyond, to his social resentment.

It is in scenes where Kaczynski is preparing his attacks in dingy motel rooms, assembling bombs and grooming himself, that Stone portrays him as the most collected and stable version of himself, the irony highlighting that this man was nothing but a sociopath. The ur-example of the isolated, radicalized white man. The movie lives and dies on Sharlto Copley’s performance, an actor who is as commanding as he can easily veer into ham. Here, though, he is at his best, anchored by just letting Kaczynski speak through his own words, where Copley chooses to go with a calm cadence while never going overboard during the Unabomber’s outbursts of rage and desperation.

Stone, alongside co-writers Gaddy Davis and John Rosenthal, lets Ted Kaczynski reveal himself as a proto-incel, a middle-aged man who still blames his mother for making him incapable of establishing relationships with women, whose misogyny is open in the typical ways you’d expect from a reclusive man. It’s also explored further in the figure of an imaginary girlfriend, a woman dressed in trad-wife uniform. I cannot say whether this is actually based on psychological assessments or is a stretch of the filmmakers’ imagination, but it is a pointed barb, as a direct message from them to any male trying to find in Kaczynski a hero. Moreover, his self-aggrandizing as the ultimate modern frontiersman is put into question when it is revealed, through tense conversations with his brother or mother, that he still relied on borrowing money from them.

Ted K is a movie that is part mood piece, part biopic with no epic for a bad and sad person. Perhaps the biggest flaw with Ted K is its running length of over two hours and some strange tonal shift to the tropes of the crime montage when the Unabomber is carrying out his bombing runs in the city. It never veers into accidental glorification, but it does break from the careful ambiance of psychological oppression throughout the rest of the movie.

Accompanied by a pounding score by Blanck Mass, Ted K succeeds in giving us an honest portrayal of a psychopathic terrorist, one that is actually conscious that as an audience, we are sometimes too easily caught up in our morbid fascination and mythologizing of psychos, preventing us from seeing the little broken men that they are.

Ted K is available on Hulu in the States, Paramount+ in Canada, Prime Video in the UK and VOD elsewhere