Ted Kaczynksi, more popularly known as The Unabomber, lived in isolation in a 10×12 cabin in the woods of Lincoln, Montana. Arguably that might be enough to have driven anyone crazy, but director Tony Stone puts together a more detailed and intimate portrait of one man’s descent from loner to terrorist.
Focusing primarily on the seven years before his arrest while Ted (Sharlto Copley) was living that hermit life off the grid in the middle of a forest, Ted K doesn’t provide much context or insight into who Ted was before he left society completely, or what might have driven him to do so. Filmed in the same woods where he lived and using the 25 000 pages of his coded diary as its basis, the film tries to remain impartial, merely eavesdropping on our subject while he mutters to himself, shakes his fist at planes overhead, begs family for money over collect calls made from a phone booth. He rails against the industrial system, sometimes generally, sometimes more specifically (leaf blowers, snow mobiles), the destruction of nature, the proliferation of technology, which he predicts will be our downfall.
Bomb making becomes just one of his daily tasks in his cramped cabin. More angry than evil, more sick than disturbed, Ted exists on the margins of society in more ways than one. As his mental health frays and unravels, he seeks to soothe his pain with vengeance. Unable to engage in any meaningful way, anonymously sending violence through the mail to imagined adversaries feels like such an on-the-nose characterization of Ted’s particular psychology that if it was fiction rather than fact, you wouldn’t quite believe it.
At times I felt alienated by the film, which does its job a little too well painting Ted K as an unknowable type, but Sharlto Copley’s performance kept drawing me back in. His exact recipe is known only to him, but its ingredients include neuroses, coiled anger, desperation, internal grand-standing, loneliness, disconnection, superiority, inferiority, and more. Yet Stone chooses to show him in mostly banal circumstances, even his terrorism reduced to ordinary little tasks performed in ramshackle shed by a solitary, mumbling man. The film is Copley’s alone; other people are mere footnotes and even his victims are spared little thought. He is the subject of the largest manhunt in FBI history, but of that we have no sense. The film has no sense of urgency or drama. Ted K is just a sad and lonely man going about his business. The movie asks for no mercy, no sympathy, it just tries to get inside his head, and sometimes even succeeds in doing so.