There’s a moment relatively early on in Ted K that, in most other films, would let you know exactly where this tale of one of America’s most notorious homegrown terrorists is going. It sees the Unabomber, aka Theodore Kaczynski (played here by Sharlto Copley), yelling down the phone at his mother about how bad he is with women, and the blame he places at his parents’ door for the fact. It looks for a minute like writer-director Tony Stone is taking the easy way out, couching the Unabomber’s actions within the biopic of an angry loser. Instead, Stone paints a more complete, and disquieting, picture, deftly balancing between keeping us both within Ted’s head and at an arm’s length from his actions.
Ted K ignores most biopic tropes, essentially getting Ted’s life story out of the way in an opening text crawl, and instead focusing in exclusively on his mindset during his nearly 20 year bombing campaign, using the actual writings found in Ted’s cabin in the Montana wilderness for dialogue and narration. It’s a technique that brings us uncomfortably close to the man, not allowing us to simply dismiss him as a crank or a monster but forcing us to consider the swirling rage in his head that eventually led to him being on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
Crucial to this working is the central performance from Copley, and it’s the best he’s been since probably his breakout work on District 9. Anger and frustration simply radiate from him in a fizzing, mercurial performance that is both magnetic and off-putting. As the only real character in the film, there’s a lot of weight on Copley’s shoulders here, but he rises to the challenge, especially in his various phone conversations with his (entirely off-screen) family. You can see Ted force himself to reject their love and concern from within the confines of the phonebooth and it’s, if not quite moving, a powerful grace note in a film that could have easily been much nastier.
Less successful are Ted’s encounters with people from the outside world, which are still well-acted but feel generic compared to the moments when we’re exclusively in Ted’s company, simply showing us a weird, misogynistic guy in a way that is very familiar from any and all manner of Taxi Driver-inspired films. Obviously, Travis Bickle is an inevitable touchstone for this story of a diary-keeping man who believes far too strongly in his own righteous violence, but Stone mostly succeeds in escaping the shadow of that Scorsese masterpiece.
This is thanks, in no small part, to some surprisingly bold stylistic choices. With its forested setting, slow fades, and synth-y score, Ted K often resembles a calmer and less psychedelic version of Panos Cosmatos’s magnificent Mandy from 2018, which is a mood I wish far more films would chase, especially in the place of sticking to dull biopic conventions. There are a couple of formal missteps – a lot of the insert shots look like they were done on a phone or a GoPro, which really doesn’t fit the whole ‘primitive anarchist’ vibe – but they’re easily forgivable in the face of what Stone does right. The lack of hard moral stance offered by Ted K could prove disappointing or even distasteful to some – and is certainly only possible thanks to the sheer physical distance Kaczynski put between himself and his crimes – but there’s no denying that it’s grimly compelling to live in its world.