Review: Documentarian Tony Stone Brings a True-Crime Sensibility to Kaczynski Chronicler Ted K

From the director of the terrific documentary Peter and the Farm, Tony Stone, comes his narrative feature debut Ted K. The film borrows heavily from the doc aesthetic to bring us the story of Ted Kaczynski (better known to the world as the Unabomber, and played with a unnerving presence by Sharlto Copley), who lived a life of almost complete isolation in a one-room wooden cabin in the mountains of Lincoln, Montana. Shooting on location, Stone seeks to immerse us in Kaczynski’s day-to-day life of warding off any intrusion into his secluded life (he called the police on or directly confronted everyone from motor-bikers to snowmobilers regularly).

He was suspicious of all forms of technology, except the kind he could build to blow up as package bombs, often delivered to the heads of companies or politicians. But it was conventional social norms he was really rebelling against, including the institution of marriage, which he saw as a consuming force that took his brother away from him. Because much of his life was a contradiction, Kaczynski, according to the film, frequently fantasized of being in a loving relationship with an old-fashioned woman (Amber Rose Mason). But in those moments where he realizes he’s let his fantasy life take over too much, he quickly swings back into being one of the country’s most elusive killers who sparked the largest manhunt in FBI history.

One of his greatest desires was having his notorious anti-corporation and -technology manifesto published in The New York Times, which ironically led directly to his getting caught. There isn’t much to Ted K in terms of story, but watching Kaczynski slowly sink into the darkness of his own mind, meticulously piecing together bombs and experimenting with explosions is mesmerizing. He takes pride in his work, especially when the bombs go off as he’d planned, but he seems prouder still that he figured out the mechanics on these devices on his own. The filmmaker doesn’t seek to dig too deeply into what made Kaczynski this way, but he does linger in what his radicalization does to him as a human. The few interactions he does have with the outside world often don’t end well, especially when he’s forced to beg for money from his family or even hold down a temporary job just to have some income.

Despite the wide-open locations, Ted K turns claustrophobic and becomes almost smothering by the time Kaczynski is caught, due mostly to Copley’s remarkable performance, which at times will make your skin crawl (partly because Kaczynski lived a fairly filthy life). The movie’s greatest sin is running too long, but even that doesn’t take away from its strength as much as it possibly could have. I’m not sure the film is for everyone, but it’s a startlingly different and frankly welcome take on the serial-killer, true crime genre. Less interested in forensic details than the inner workings of the man behind the ideas and murders, Ted K feels more like a psychological horror exercise than a docudrama, and that’s a much-appreciated approach.

The film is now playing in select theaters and is available via VOD.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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