Try as we might, it’s difficult to watch a story about an agent going toe-to-toe with a killer without recalling the many iterations that have come before it. Michael Mann’s shadowy, rock ‘n’ roll thriller ‘Manhunter’ first put FBI profiler Will Graham and Hannibal Lector in a room together in the ‘80s. More recently, ‘Mindhunter’ serialized the early days of criminal profiling for Netflix, with a little behind-the-camera help from David Fincher.
‘No Man of God’ is the latest entry into the canon (if you will). Another cryptic killer, another square-looking agent. As in ‘Mindhunter,’ this one’s rooted in chilling reality, taking liberties with real-life conversations between serial killer Ted Bundy and FBI Special Agent Bill Hagmaier before Bundy’s execution. The pair are played by Luke Kirby and Elijah Wood, respectively.
Aside from the subgenre similarities, it’s either our collective morbid fascination or tight adherence to media headlines that makes this story a familiar one. For most, the name ‘Ted Bundy’ alone conjures a vivid image of a heartless, murderous man ranked highly with the most vile to walk among us. Thus, director Amber Sealey and screenwriter Kit Lesser waste no time elaborating on the crimes, smartly jumping directly into the conversations between Hagmaier and Bundy. It’s the person-to-person, man-to-man element that ‘No Man of God’ is most concerned with.
To describe the feel of the film: it feels like a play. It’s still. It’s messy. It takes a page from Fincher’s book by treating every film frame with a tinge of yellow. And the first session between Bundy and Hagmaier is strangely static. If we’re going to play cat-and-mouse, surely we’re expecting firecrackers, and filmmaking flourishes that highlight tension. It’s airless — literally and figuratively. Once we’re in a room with Bundy and Hagmaier, we’re not let out. The camera cuts from man to man, levelling them out visually, but not giving the viewers much to be excited about — if we were handed the transcripts rather than settling in to watch a film, we might get a more riveting experience.
As these sessions make up about 75% of the film’s runtime, the fidgety audience member may grow weary. The meetings exist in a vacuum, and lacking substantial solo screen time, Bill Hagmaier as a character is not particularly well-rounded. (Via a title card, ‘No Man of God’ tells us that FBI Special Agent Bill Hagmaier is considered one of “the greatest criminal profilers in the world,” but we’re never shown the evidence for such an appraisal.)
As a character study on a moment-to-moment level, ‘No Man of God’ is shaky. As a broader analysis of man, the whole might be greater than the film’s parts.
As the film’s title suggests, the hand of God leaves its mark across these interactions between Hagmaier and Bundy. Hagmaier is a religious man who actively questions his own moral choices and capacity for male aggression, so for him to sit across from a man with ice running through his veins… that’s where the spark is, where the “there, there” of ‘No Man of God’ lies.
“I’m not here looking for evidence. I’m looking for understanding,” Hagmaier says. He believes there must be a reason for Bundy — a man who’s frighteningly revealed himself to be human and not monster, and with whom he’s shared both tense and shockingly pleasant conversations — to have committed these crimes, to have taken lives of women so brutally. Otherwise: what hope is there for any man who teeters on the edge of sanity?
Hagmaier wants to color in the faults of man with neat, crisp strokes. He’s seeking an explanation for the ugliness that exists within both Bundy and himself, using pre-existing structures like religion and stuffed-shirt FBI tactics to find order in the overwhelming chaos.
Within Hagmaier — and Elijah Wood’s dazed blue eyes — lies the lingering thematic question of the film: can a man be saved? By himself, by fellow man, by God? In its own roundabout way, ‘No Man of God’ has the answer: sometimes evil just has no explanation.
‘No Man of God’ hits theaters, on-demand, and digital platforms on August 27th.
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