In Ted K, Sharlto Copley and Tony Stone don’t quite justify yet another film tackling the complex and horrifying life of the Unabomber.
Despite the roughly 25,000 pages of diary entries and The Washington Post manifesto “Industrial Society and the Future,” Ted Kaczynski (A.K.A the Unabomber) remains a largely indecipherable figure. Two recent Netflix shows—the drama series Manhunt: Unabomber and docuseries Unabomber: In His Own Words—have attempted to shed light on the domestic terrorist’s life.
What caused Kaczynski, a former mathematics professor, to kill 3 people, injure 23 more, and become the subject of the largest manhunt in FBI history? Ted K, a new, unsettling historical crime drama directed and co-written by Tony Stone (Peter and the Farm), avoids answering this question and instead observes the societal frustrations that inspired the Unabomber’s murderous acts.
From 1978 to 1995, Kaczynski targeted individuals he deemed contributors to the destruction of humanity and the environment, including anyone from a computer store owner to the president of United Airlines. The film does not glorify his behavior, but it does allow some room for empathy, to the extent one can have for such a horrible person, through its depiction of his life of isolation and loneliness. Sharlto Copley delivers a restrained performance that presents Kaczynski as a man who is quick to anger and feels alienated from the rest of the world. He is enraged by a society that ignores his deepest fears and retreats into a 10- by 12-foot cabin in the woods of Lincoln, Montana.
We first see Ted in the distance watching through the trees with contempt as a family noisily drives their snowmobiles, disrupting the peace in his beloved woods. We then witness his rage when he breaks into the family’s home and destroys their vehicles, foreshadowing what would later become his bombing “missions.” The film places the audience straight into Kaczynski’s agitated state of mind, with Copley providing voiceover as industrial explosions, deforestation, and pollution threaten his home.
The audience understands his bombings as acts of revenge against this industrial advancement and his admission that societal change to a more primitive lifestyle is improbable. The sound design, along with the anxiety-inducing electronic score by Blanck Mass, deserve credit here as the cacophony of Kaczynski’s surroundings drives him mad and makes his attempts to escape modern society futile. In addition, the cinematography by Nathan Corbin expresses Kaczynski’s frustrations by contrasting the serene Montana landscape with the violent destruction of industrial enterprise.
Stone pushes past many conventional biopic tropes in favor of forming a series of vignettes from the last years of Kaczynski’s life before his arrest. The vignettes range from depicting the preparation and execution of the bombings to Kaczynski’s daily routine living in his cabin. Spliced in between are his regular interactions with the outside world, taking on various jobs and conversing with his mother and brother, whom he eventually cuts off contact with. In these moments, we see Kaczynski’s misanthropy and dysfunctional social habits take real shape. And through his toxic interactions with women, Kaczynski’s misogyny and sexual frustration come to the surface. “I don’t take instruction on technical matters from women,” he says before getting fired from a logging job.
These moments are also where the film unfortunately missteps. Stone’s loose narrative framework and focus on stylistic flourishes, including bizarre dream sequences and abrupt jump cuts, obfuscate the writing of Kaczynski’s character. In this way, Ted K acts more as a ponderous mood piece inundated in the slow burn of Kaczynski’s descent, rather than a film with evocative visuals that complement Copley’s lead performance.
This willingness for experimentation is respectable, but too often it leads to a repetitive narrative that lacks any forward momentum toward Kaczynski’s eventual downfall. The fantasy sequences with Becky, a woman from Kaczynski’s dreams, feel tacked on while the one-sided phone conversations with Kaczynski’s brother David are underdeveloped. This lack of cohesion results in a tedious two-hour affair with an ending that doesn’t give us much to contemplate afterward.
As the centerpiece of Ted K, Sharlto Copley’s performance shines through the muck. Projects such as District 9 and Hardcore Henry have long proven that Copley embraces risks as a transformative actor. Here, he balances Kaczynski’s rage over civilization with the peace he finds within nature. But his performance is held back by an overall mixed film. The audience is left with little to work with on what drives Kaczynski, preventing him from being a completely engaging presence. Perhaps that’s what Stone is aiming for. An enigmatic man struggling to find belonging in a world unsympathetic to his problems.
Ted K will be available in theaters and on digital on February 18. Watch the trailer here.