Director Tony Stone delves into the world of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski in Ted K, premiering in the Panorama strand of the Berlin Film Festival. More of a mood piece than a biopic, it stars an understated Sharlto Copley as the former math professor, who’s living off grid in the Montana mountains, fostering a burgeoning grudge against technology. We drop in on him over the decades as he gathers materials to experiment with bombs, targeting people he believes are harming the environment. We watch him write coded rants against industrialization, and about the invasive noise of airplanes.
Sound is key to communicating Ted’s point of view. In the wilderness, we hear the ripple of a stream, the crackle of a fire, the clank of his spoon on a tin — he is alone and uninterrupted. When an airplane flies over, he’s visibly distressed. When he takes a trip into the city, the voiceover (based on his writings) becomes almost inaudible under the noise of traffic. Classical music seems to be used when he’s feeling more satisfied; electronic intrudes when trouble is afoot. It strikes you that this would sound amazing in a movie theater, but this is 2021, and last we heard even Stone hadn’t watched his feature in one.
On the small screen, it’s a quietly involving watch that gives an insight into Kaczynski’s troubled mind with an atmospheric intensity; but with less information than a traditional feature or documentary. There are rewards in decoding the behavior of this elusive character, but the same points are repeated: basically, he is a socially awkward, paranoid, lone conspiracist. These traits are best established in one-sided phone conversations in a remote, creaky phone booth. In an early conversation with his mother, Ted is clearly berated for his lack of social skills. Ted blames her for putting him ahead two years at high school, and for his resulting lack of sexual experience (“Well, who do you want me to tell? Who should I tell this to, Ma?”). At this point, the camera starts whirling around the phone booth — it’s giddying, almost nauseating, creating a sense of the discomfort Ted experiences when speaking to others.
Like several movie ‘incels’ before him — most recently Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker — Ted retreats into a fantasy world when it comes to women. Becky (a well-cast Amber Rose Mason) is his occasional imaginary companion, tellingly dressed in fashions from the 50s, a simpler time. When he speaks to real people, he’s rude and often sexist (“I don’t take direction from women on mechanical matters,” he tells a female boss). But this takes an even-handed approach to the character, showing his actions and thoughts rather than inviting us to judge him. Like Ted, we don’t see the damage he inflicts first hand: we hear about it on the news.
Authenticity is clearly paramount to the filmmakers, who painstakingly recreated Kaczynski’s cabin in its original location. But while this succeeds in putting us into Ted’s physical world — claustrophobic even in the wild — it doesn’t give a deep insight into his mind. Perhaps that is the point, but it makes Ted K more impressive for its use of sound and vision than its investigation of a character.
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