A risky experiment with a striking payoff, “Ted K” is an impressionistic attempt to personalize the most unrelatable experience imaginable: life as a killer.
Prolific serial killers are often introduced with media-minded nicknames, making it easier for us simultaneously to separate from them and to connect with them. We look upon them as Other, but remain interested, reading and worrying and wondering until — and well after — they’re caught.
The Unabomber is among the most notable examples, with 26 victims spanning nearly two decades. His incomprehensible violence spurred the largest manhunt in FBI history, and as it went on, we all kept reading, and worrying, and wondering.
‘Russian Doll’ Season 2 Adds Sharlto Copley
Director Tony Stone (“Peter and the Farm”) and his co-writers, John Rosenthal and Gaddy Davis, strip away most of the rest in an attempt to address the incomprehensibility. Certainly, the film’s generically ordinary title is no coincidence. Stone wants us to see Ted — whose full name is Theodore John Kaczynski — as a person, rather than a notorious monster. This is a hazardous choice, of course, not least because it risks privileging a terrorist over the people he terrorized. But Stone is not merely aware that he’s walking a fine line; he turns it into a tightrope, going all in and pulling off a haunting spectacle as a result.
He is matched in his bravado by lead Sharlto Copley (“District 9”), who burrows with intensity, and occasional over-amplification, into Ted’s agitated brain. Though it’s not a pretty place to be, it is certainly a more complex one than any nickname could allow.
Stone isn’t remotely interested in a traditional biopic, almost impatiently dispensing with most of the facts in an opening crawl: Ted went to Harvard at 16, became a mathematics professor at UC Berkeley, dropped out of civilization soon after, and disappeared into the far recesses of the Rocky Mountains.
Instead of retelling us what we can easily find on Wikipedia, Stone relies on the 25,000 pages of frenzied writing found in Kaczynski’s tiny cabin, using those notebooks to inspire everything from plot to dialogue to inner monologue. Most of the film features the latter, since Ted is not a guy who appreciates other people in general.
There are a few significant exchanges with neighbors, fellow volunteers at his local library and his brother David. There’s also an idealized and rather awkwardly portrayed relationship with a female figment of his increasingly manic imagination (Amber Rose Mason). But his primary interactions are shouting matches sparked by the arrogant trespassers who carelessly roar through his pristine Montana land on ATVs or snowmobiles.
That land, like the movie in general, is absolutely gorgeous, as director of photography Nathan Corbin approaches his job with unexpected but powerful artistry. Stone and Brad Turner (“Patti Cake$”) co-edit the film to similarly startling, sharply purposeful, effect: After gasping at the stunning wildlife roaming freely around the breathtaking vista where Ted has chosen to live in monastic awe, can we blame him for hating all who would destroy it? For being pushed to alienated fury over their ceaseless selfishness and willful destruction of our mutual planet?
Well, yeah. We can, and we have to, because Ted destroys, too: First he cuts snowmobile wires and then he builds bombs. And then those bombs maim people, and then they kill people. Sometimes they hurt the intended recipients, like executives in timber or oil industries. Sometimes they hurt others, like the secretaries and assistants who happen to open the mail. And even as Stone brings us right to the edge of Ted’s mind — as he documents the brilliant passion curdling into narcissistic madness — he knows that we can’t fall into the ravine with him.
The Psychopathic Psyche Probe has become an increasingly popular genre, for better (“My Friend Dahmer”) and worse (“Chapter 27”). Stone is so committed, so aware of every trap and every opportunity, that his is among the most memorable entries. He seems attuned to the nuances of every detail, from the carefully-researched recreation of Ted’s cabin in the very spot it once stood, to the fevered mental fantasies that unfold against lacelike classical symphonies and Blanck Mass’s unsettling electronica.
In the end Stone achieves his goal: locating Ted inside the Unabomber. He reserves his own judgement, while managing to skirt the suggestion that we do the same. The actions remain as clearly monstrous as they always were. But the monster himself, still trapped in the same zealous mind, is a man once more.
“Ted K” opens in U.S. theaters and on demand Feb. 18.