Impressionist drama Unabomber reveals the man under the monster

A risky experiment with a startling payoff, “Ted K” is an impressionistic attempt to personalize the most unimaginable experience: the life of a killer.

Prolific serial killers are often presented with media nicknames, making it easier for us to both separate ourselves from them and connect with them. We see them as Others, but remain interested, reading, worrying and wondering until – and long after – they are caught.

The Unabomber is one of the most notable examples, with 26 kills over nearly two decades. His incomprehensible violence sparked the biggest manhunt in FBI history, and as it went on, we all continued to read, worry, and wonder.

Director Tony Stone (“Peter and the Farm”) and his co-writers, John Rosenthal and Gaddy Davis, remove most of the rest in an attempt to remedy 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 an iconic monster. It’s a risky choice, of course, not least because it risks favoring a terrorist over the people he’s terrorizing. But Stone is not only aware that he is walking a fine line; he turns it into a tightrope, going all out and putting on a haunting spectacle in the process.

He is matched in his bravado by leader Sharlto Copley (“District 9”), who burrows with intensity, and sometimes over-amplification, into Ted’s restless brain. While it’s not a pretty place, it’s certainly more complex than any nickname could allow.

Stone isn’t at all interested in a traditional biopic, almost eagerly forgoing most of the facts in a preliminary exploration: Ted went to Harvard at 16, became a math professor at UC Berkeley, dropped out of civilization soon after and disappeared into the farthest reaches of the Rocky Mountains.

Ted K.

Instead of telling us what we can easily find on Wikipedia, Stone relies on the 25,000 pages of frenetic writing found in Kaczynski’s tiny cabin, using those notebooks to inspire everything from plot to dialogue to by interior monologue. Most of the movie features the latter, since Ted isn’t a guy who generally appreciates other people.

There are some meaningful exchanges with neighbours, fellow volunteers from her local library and her brother David. There’s also an idealized, and rather awkwardly portrayed, relationship with a woman born out of his increasingly maniacal imagination (Amber Rose Mason). But his main interactions are screaming matches sparked by the arrogant intruders who roar carelessly through his pristine Montana lands on ATVs or snowmobiles.

This land, like film in general, is absolutely stunning, as cinematographer Nathan Corbin approaches his work with unexpected yet powerful artistry. Stone and Brad Turner (“Patti Cake$”) co-edit the film to equally startling and decidedly resolute effect: after gasping at the magnificent wildlife roaming freely around the jaw-dropping vista where Ted has chosen to live in monastic fear, can we blame him for hating all who would destroy him? For being driven to insane fury over their relentless selfishness and willful destruction of our mutual planet?

Ted K.

Well yeah. We can and we must, because Ted also destroys: he first cuts the cables of the snowmobiles, then he makes bombs. And then these bombs maim people, then they kill people. Sometimes they hurt the intended recipients, such as executives in the wood or oil industries. Sometimes they hurt others, like secretaries and assistants who open mail. And even though Stone takes us to the edge of Ted’s mind — as he documents the brilliant passion that turns into narcissistic madness — he knows we can’t fall down the ravine with him.

The Psychopathic Psyche Probe has become an increasingly popular genre, for better (“My Friend Dahmer”) and for worse (“Chapter 27”). Stone is so committed, so aware of every trap and every opportunity, that his own is among the most memorable entries. It seems attuned to the nuances of every detail, from the carefully considered recreation of Ted’s cabin on the very spot it once stood, to the feverish mental fantasies that play out against classical lacy symphonies and electronica. disturbing by Blanck Mass.

In the end, Stone achieves his goal: locate Ted inside the Unabomber. He reserves his own judgement, while managing to avoid the suggestion that we do the same. The actions remain as clearly monstrous as they always have been. But the monster himself, still imprisoned in the same zealous spirit, has become a man again.

“Ted K” opens in U.S. theaters and on demand February 18.

About Victoria Rothstein

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