“Ted K” is a dry but intense film which will surely unnerve you for good reasons. As an austere character study based on the real-life story of one notorious bomber who is thankfully being incarcerated in a state penitentiary at present, the movie is often uncomfortable to watch for being as single-minded as its terrible hero, but it is handled with enough skill and tactfulness at least, while also anchored well by the presence and talent of its lead performer.
Sharlto Copley, who has steadily advanced since his breakout turn in Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” (2009), plays Ted Kaczynski, a former college professor who has been known to us more as the “Unabomber”. As told to us at the beginning of the film, Kaczynski was once a promising math prodigy, but, mainly due to his antisocial personality coupled with his sexual frustration with women, he eventually threw away almost everything in his life in addition to quitting his college job. In 1971, he started to live alone in a self-made cabin located in the middle of some remote area of Montana, but his psychological condition only got worse during next several years. This came to fuel his disdain toward modern technology more and more, and that was the main motive of a series of horrible crimes committed by him later.
At first, the movie simply observes Kaczynski’s solitary lifestyle mainly revolving around his cabin. He does not interact with anyone else except some few persons living in a neighboring region, and he is mostly fine with that, but he is often furious about all the noises interrupting his own small world. For example, the loud noises from a nearby lumber mill annoy him at lot everyday, and he also hates the sonic booms caused by airplanes frequently flying over his territory.
We see how he responds to all these and other annoyances in his twisted ways. He happens to be annoyed by some winter vacationers on one day, so he invades into their vacation house not long after they left, and then he damages the house to considerable degree. When he later works at that lumber mill for earning a bit, he comes to hate that lumber mill more than before, and he eventually commits an act of sabotage at one night.
Whenever Kaczynski pours his angry thoughts and feelings on paper, the screenplay by director/co-producer/co-editor Tony Stone and his co-wrtiers John Rosenthal and Gaddy Davis delves a bit into its troubled hero’s mind as quoting the excerpts from the actual writings from Kaczynski. Although he is clearly a smart and intelligent guy, his writings are more or less than the angry ramblings of a lunatic shouting against the wall, and he comes to feel more like a ticking bomb as his writing becomes more hostile and aggressive with growing anger and malice toward modern technology.
Unfortunately, there is no one to help or stop Kaczynski, and the movie frequently emphasizes his increasingly isolated status to us. At one point, we see him talking to his mother on the phone, but we do not hear whatever she is saying to him. Later in the story, he calls his brother and then asks him to send some money, but he does not ask nicely at all, and we can only imagine how much that disturbs his brother at the other end of the line.
There are actually a few moments of respite for him via a certain female figure, but the movie promptly reveals how delusional his mind really is, and we subsequently get several intense scenes showing more of his growing paranoia about modern technology. Even at that point, the movie still maintains some distance between itself and its hero, but Copley, who also participated in the production of the film, thoroughly embodies his character’s mental confusion and torment, and we come to regard Kaczynski with more dread and nervousness as he goes further with his act of terror.
During its second half, the movie naturally focuses on what Kaczynski committed during 1978-1995, but it wisely avoids any cheap thrill while sharply recognizing the horrific aspects of his serious crimes. There is a chilling scene where he targets some ordinary guy just because this guy happens to be running a computer shop, and we are chilled further as observing how Kaczynski casually moves from one target after another without getting caught for many years.
Of course, there eventually comes a point where he makes a big misstep as demanding more attention from the public, but, again, the movie sticks to its detached attitude as usual. When Kaczynski comes to learn that his 35,000-word manifesto is presented to the public via two major newspapers as demanded, he is naturally exalted, but that does not change his pathetic existence at all. In case of the expected finale, this part is presented with considerable restraint, and I appreciate how the movie does not resort to any unnecessary sensationalism even at that point.
Overall, “Ted K” is definitely not something you can casually watch on Sunday afternoon, but I recommend it mainly for Stone’s competent direction and Copley’s committed acting. Like Justin Kurzel’s recent film “Nitram” (2021), which is also a cold-blooded character study inspired by one very disturbed real-life figure who committed an atrocious act of terror, the movie simply observes with objective detachment, but the result is disturbingly tense and powerful to say the least, and you will not forget it easily after watching it.