Ted K traces a number of years in the life of the unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. Rather than take the conventional biopic route, the film serves as something more meditative. Written from a melange of Kaczynski’s actual journals and letters, the film seeks to evoke a mood of the unabomber’s existence. We trace Kaczynski through any number of mundane daily tasks as his frustration with the world around him ramps up. The vandalization of wealthy homes and snowmobiles begets nail bombs.
This is a transformative performative for Sharlto Copley. Not merely in terms of how he inhabits the character of Ted Kaczynski, but in terms of how we should think about him as a performer. Copley broke onto the scene as the lead in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. Much of his career has seen the actor playing very big eccentrics: The A-Team, Elysium, Maleficent, and Free Fire among them. They’re all interesting, fun performances – the man has immense natural charisma – but they’re not the sort of roles one would expect as the lead up for this type of film.
Here, Copley is on screen for nearly every second of the run time. Much of his performance is dialogue free as the actor forages for food, skins a rabbit, or builds a pipe bomb. It requires some buy-in from the audience, but Copley’s natural charisma – even muted as it is here – makes these mundane tasks compelling. Copley does an excellent job of internalizing each slight and injustice. One sequence sees the character confront a phone company employee over change stolen by a payphone over the prior months. Copley plays the scene as though hundreds of dollars have been lost so when the actual total – $5.75 – is revealed it plays as darkly comedic. Copley does an excellent job of keeping Kaczynski’s distinct white male fragility at a simmer bubbling just beneath the surface.
The film is fascinating in the way that it’s clearly empathetic to Kaczynski’s ideas, if not his methods. I don’t think there’s any question in the mind of the filmmakers that Kaczynski is a heel, but there’s a real openness to the notion that his anti-corporate, technophobia was on to something. What Kaczynski fires rifles shots at passing helicopters, he’s less a blossoming mass murderer and more a man powerless against the progress of technology.
As the opening text makes clear, the film was made on the actual land where Kaczynski lived. It gives the whole thing a disquieting, almost documentary feel. When Copley’s Kaczynski ventures into town it never escapes mind that these are the same streets the real Kaczynski frequented. In fact, some of the background actors in town are real people who knew the real Kaczynski. It creates an uncomfortably realistic feeling.
Writer/director Tony Stone has a wonderful eye for capturing nature. The Montana wilderness where much of the film was crafted makes for captivating scenery. It’s easier to understand the view of nature Kaczynski desired to protect when viewed through Stone’s lens. Ted K is a challenging film, but also a worthy one. It may be the most impressive work of Sharlto Copley’s career and, for me at least, gave a bit of unique perspective on the life of Ted Kaczynski.
Ted K is out in select theater and on video on demand platforms today.
Please watch my interview with Sharlto Copley and Tony Stone about the film here: A Conversation with Sharlto Copley and Tony Stone on Ted K