• Reviewed at the 2021 Berlinale.

Before the word ‘incel’ was coined and the danger of domestic terrorism fully realised, Ted Kaczynski was sitting in his cabin in the woods writing reams of eco-fascist musings and building bombs. The maths genius turned murderer better known as the Unabomber is the subject of Tony Stone’s new film, an intimate portrait of a man whose frustrations turn to murderous violence.

We first spy Ted in the distance through the trees, while in the foreground snowmobiles tear through the landscape. The noise of the snowmobiles and the heavy doom-filled drone of the Blanck Mass score portends something bad brewing. Sure enough, Ted breaks into the home of the offending snowmobilers and vandalises the vehicles.

It is the late 1970s and Ted (played with wild-eyed commitment by Sharlto Copley) has retreated to the woods in the mountains of Montana. Even here his Waldenesque rural retreat is constantly intruded on by a noisy modernity. Snowmobiles in the winter, cross-country motorcyclists in the summer and logging operations all year round contribute to a cacophony which, thanks to Tim Obzud’s sound design, seems to drill into Ted’s head, rendering impossible his escape from modern industrial society.

The way Ted is beset almost becomes comic. Ted’s cabin has to be the noisiest hermitage ever, but the suggestion – similar to that of Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007) – is that there is no way of escaping. Only a vanishingly small wilderness remains.

Ted is soon testing his homemade explosives and heading across the country on “missions”, all the while explaining his grievances in a voiceover gleaned by scriptwriters Stone, Gaddy Davis and John Rosenthal from the thousands of pages Kaczynski wrote.

Initially, Ted cuts a pathetic figure, riding a chopper bicycle to town and wearing chunky sunglasses. But his misanthropy and more particular misogyny come easily to the surface. “I don’t take instruction on technical matters from women,” he tells one at the logging camp where he briefly works, earning a prompt firing from the woman who happens to run the place. Although targeting ideological enemies, Ted admits the bombs are more about spite than societal change.

Despite Ted’s relatively flat character arc, Copley does a superb job of realising the tragicomic figure of a man convinced of his own delusions. That hoary old cliche about the banality of evil has never been so apt as Ted goes from gleefully plotting to murder people to having a drawn-out argument with the phone company – the offices of which he visits in person – about how the payphone eats through his quarters. When asked how much money he has lost, the sum is predictably pitiful.

In fact, Copley’s performance is so strong, it renders Stone’s occasional attempts to depict Ted’s madness with a cinematic flourish – a nightmare sequence of the cabin turning upside down – as redundant. This is especially true of a Joker-like imaginary girlfriend: a never-convincing trope which surely needs to be retired. Ultimately, Ted K works in the vein of John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1989) – a film which, along with The Shining, it visually quotes – and, with the rise of far-right terrorism in the US, is regrettably all too relevant today.

Further reading

Wolves, lambs – and Clarice Starling: the rise of the serial killer in 1990s cinema

By Amy Taubin

Wolves, lambs – and Clarice Starling: the rise of the serial killer in 1990s cinema

Why do we treat serial killers’ gay victims as dramatically disposable?

By Alex Davidson

Why do we treat serial killers’ gay victims as dramatically disposable?

Joker review: Joaquin Phoenix’s alienated antihero is no laughing matter

By Christina Newland

Joker review: Joaquin Phoenix’s alienated antihero is no laughing matter