No Man of God (2021) is one of the best cinematic versions of true crime in recent years, sporting two incredible performances from Elijah Wood and Luke Kirby, with thematic angles worth praising from director Amber Sealey and writer Kit Lesser.
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An understatement of understanding
TED: You just wanted to understand.
BILL: I still do.
This is a key moment during the latter half of Amber Sealey’s latest feature film, No Man of God (2021), where the two leads of the film share a moment of vulnerability with one another. It’s a simple exchange of words, in a film that is, in all honesty, mostly people talking.
It’s not the quippiest of lines, perhaps too subtle for most mainstream cinema, but it’s an exchange of two lines that inherently defines the intention of both characters and the film on hand.
No Man of God (2021) is a dramatic representation of understanding and the pursuit of it.
Bill and Ted’s Journey
The Bill and Ted indicated in the exchange above are hardly the rocking jokesters that have now faced the music in their third film, but they are the characterizations of Bill Hagmaier and Ted Bundy – the two very real individuals made famous (or infamous, depending on your outlook) through the kills and subsequent trials that rocked America throughout the 70s and 80s.
No Man of God (2021) is not the first film attempting to tell a portion of serial killer Ted Bundy’s story, but it is the first one in a long time that seems to feature a better angle than ‘Look at [insert actor name here] as Bundy!’
The boom of cinematic and dramatized versions of real life crime has been spectacularly exploitative as of lately and even when it’s great – say, Mindhunter on Netflix, there is a sense that it’s capitalizing on a trend rather than adding anything interesting to the mix.
No Man of God (2021) takes a rather intriguing approach though, similar to the previously mentioned Netflix show, by looking at the aftermath of Bundy and the time in prison leading up to his execution.
Hagmaier under the lens
The focus is not actually on Bundy, here. It’s on Bill Hagmaier, played with stark nuance and vulnerability by Elijah Wood, and the conflict and driving purpose of the film is his connection with Bundy through a series of interviews in the final years leading up to the execution.
Easily one of the best ‘based on a true crime’ films to be released in the last ten years
The film expertly navigates around a more traditional approach to its narrative, either as a tale about the birth of FBI profilers or as a more traditional power struggle to deliver confessions from Bundy about his streak of murders, and instead drills into the two characters and their dynamic.
It’s a brilliant move by director Amber Sealey and writer “Kit Lesser” – both in creating realism and keeping the budget down. Focusing on Bill acts as a surrogate connection to its audience that shares in his fascination with understanding the motivation and drive of killers like Bundy.
Not junkfood cinema
Sharp writing in the scenes between Bill and Ted create a vibrant effect, played up by a truthful and unnervingly charming performance by Luke Kirby; the tit-for-tat between the two men is far more interesting than expected.
Considering No Man of God (2021) is written by Kit Lesser (a pseudonym for writer C. Robert Cargill of Doctor Strange (2016) and Sinister (2012) fame), the film could have easily meandered down a more exploitative path.
Cargill is the co-host of a podcast called Junkfood Cinema (a brilliant podcast might I add, particularly as a critic that leans into vulgar auteurism), but those exploitation and junkfood tones are never apparent in this film.
Like the exchange of dialogue presented at the beginning of this review, it’s obvious that the script is meant to pursue understanding, exploring the relationship between Hagmaier and Bundy rather than deliver thrills and kills.
A not-so-subtle interrogation
As mentioned, the performances from both Wood and Kirby are layered and subtle, occasionally culminating in outbreaks of emotion – horror, sadness, and anger – that punctuate the building dialogue and tension.
Director Sealey shoots everything as though it’s a chess match between rival players with the utmost respect for the other as they attempt to garner the slightest advantage towards their respective goals.
The first time the two meet is especially tense and Sealey uses visual language of shots, close ups, and sound edits to deliver those moments and, as the film tone changes, she aptly evolves the style of the film (which is still very ‘indie’ and intimate) to match their relationship.
It’s obvious that the script is meant to pursue understanding…rather than deliver thrills and kills
By the time the third act rolls around, where Bundy’s execution date is suddenly on top of the character, Hagmaier must account for Bundy’s volatility and the circus of people attempting to use him for their own purposes; the execution smartly embraces its more chaotic tone.
Know a good book?
Yet, the most fascinating aspect of the film is one that only appears in small moments and mostly through the dialogue. It’s the religious angle to the entire film.
Granted, had the film used it in a heavier manner it might have come off as, pardon the phrase, ‘preachy’. Still, the film is titled No Man of God (2021); Hagmaier is portrayed as a religious individual who occasionally slips in comments about faith or judgement, and the third act features some striking moments of religious elements.
Not that I often get too political or religious in my criticisms of film, but it is such an interesting feature – and used so artfully – that I felt inclined to include it here.
No Man of God (2021): hidden gem of the year?
No Man of God (2021) is easily one of the best ‘based on a true crime’ films to be released in the last ten years, particularly in comparison to how many films have utilized real life serial killers or events in their narratives.
The angle towards the relationship between Hagmaier and Bundy is refreshingly humane, the focus on the act of understanding is intimate, and Sealey knows exactly how to play the film to balance its tone and characters.
The stars of the film, Wood and Kirby, are the true highlights though and it’s their tight and relatable performances that carry a film that might have been a slog had it been placed in less artful hands.
No Man of God (2021) might not get the acclaim it would have with bigger names or more thrilling intentions, but it’s one of the best films of the year.
Writer, podcaster, cinema fiend, drive-in mutant, kung fu fanatic, horror hound, vulgar auteur, and sometimes human being. I’ve been writing about cinema for over ten years now, dedicating my time to all genre cinema. Co-creator of Blood Brother Film Reviews and co-host of the No Franchise Fatigue podcast.