For a criminal who revealed his agenda in exhaustively detailed black-and-white — via his famous essay “Industrial Society and the Future,” published in The Washington Post months ahead of his 1996 capture — Ted Kaczynski remains a somewhat unreadable figure. The domestic terrorist better known as the Unabomber killed three people and injured two dozen more in a national bombing campaign aimed at protesting man’s environmental destruction and technological dependence. Yet his manifesto shed little light on who he actually was, or how a mild-mannered math professor from Chicago grew into an eccentric, isolated survivalist and, eventually, FBI most-wanted material. That makes him a subject both fascinating and oddly resistant to dramatization, though that hasn’t stopped writers and filmmakers from trying over the years.
The latest such effort, Tony Stone’s growlingly moody “Ted K,” is a biopic that effectively honors its subject with its opaque severity. There’s little attempt here to “crack” Kaczynski or psychologize him, even though the script is drawn heavily from his own extensive writings. A vivid, committed performance by Sharlto Copley does make the man of a million headlines seem appreciably human, but not approachably so. This is a distant, impressionistic character study that seeks to immerse its audience in a generally nervous state of mind — both that of Kaczynski himself, as his ambitions and exploits escalate to a point of anonymous celebrity, and of a public at his selective mercy. Quite what we gain from the experience is uncertain, with most viewers likely to leave the film understanding little more of the Unabomber than they did two hours before. Still, “Ted K” is impressive and oppressive in equal measure.
A slow introductory crawl fills in the Wikipedia-level facts about Kaczynski for the uninformed, while also playing up the authenticity of the film to follow. It was shot, we are told, on the very patch of Montana land where Kaczynski’s spartan 10- by 12-foot cabin once stood, and incorporates firsthand perspective from the 25,000 pages of journaling found inside it. Stone hardly needs to brag. “Ted K” projects stony, disquieting conviction from its aggressive first set piece, which introduces Kaczynski spying on a wealthy family, his contempt tangible as they rowdily mess around on high-end snowmobiles outside their mountain lodge. Once they’ve left the premises, he breaks in, hacking through the walls with an ax before laying waste to the offending vehicles. An eerie electro-orchestral score by British experimental musician Blanck Mass (aka Benjamin John Power) is cranked to ear-stinging levels as the carnage continues.
This passage of home-invasion horror may be of little consequence compared to the crimes Kaczynski later commits, but it arrestingly captures his grievances in miniature. “Ted K” isn’t wholly unsympathetic to its subject’s cause, even if this opening salvo offers a frightening taste of the crazed excess with which he takes action. But the filmmaking gives weight to his pained concern for the environment, and his positively feverish sensitivity to noise pollution. The sound design is discordant, distorted, even anxiety-inducing. DP Nathan Corbin offers multiple serene tableaux of the verdant Montana landscape being wrecked by industry, as ruthlessly as Kaczynski hacks up those snowmobiles. Stone’s film doesn’t need to warm or soften its subject’s persona to underline the essential tragedy of the man: that he had something of a point, and the worst possible way of making it.
Rather than tracing a dutiful biographical arc, Stone’s script (co-written with Gaddy Davis and John Rosenthal) is composed of scattered vignettes from the last decade or so of Kaczynski’s life as a free man. Some are speculatively intimate, capturing his solitary daily routine in the woods, with no electricity and only a radio as a link to the modern world. Others procedurally mark the planning and execution of his bombings, though they maintain the cool temperature and austere observational tack of the more everyday scenes. The filmmakers can afford this unemotive reserve, since Copley’s strange, highly-strung work anchors proceedings with all the jittery intensity they need. In the South African star’s most interesting and expansive showcase since his debut in “District 9,” callused body language contrasts with the reedy, unconfident vocal tics of a man who rarely speaks to anyone but himself.
The backstory of Kaczynski’s evolution into a woody recluse is only glancingly filled in, often via anguished, one-sided phone conversations with his brother David, who is kept as inaudible as any direct line into the past. A scattering of fantasy scenes with the devoted woman of Kaczynski’s dreams are a miscalculation that feel imported from a more conventional, explicatory draft of this project. Likewise, we hardly need the blunt musical cue of Bobby Vinton’s “Mister Lonely” to tell us what a sad, sexless life we’re observing. At its best, “Ted K” reveals itself in sound, mood and texture, akin to the most prickly minimalism of Gus van Sant or Antonio Campos. It sidesteps any popular Unabomber mythos and remains reluctant to forge any of its own. Ted Kaczynski isn’t just a regular guy, that much Stone’s film makes clear. But he’s just a guy all the same.