Ted K takes a potentially fascinating study and reduces it to a series of madman tropes and Wikipedia summarizing.
The name Theodore Kaczynski has, for better or for worse, been so ingrained in our present-day cultural consciousness that its abbreviation, ‘Ted K’, contains little ambiguity. From anti-capitalist messiah to hippie domestic terrorist and back to contemporary reclamation as a prophetic revolutionary, the Unabomber’s life, times, and ideas have been received with a great variety of interest: forensic, academic, ideological, personal, historical, and so on. Little, though, has been accomplished in the fictional department, where true-crime and the sensational blend into each other as part of an unholy alliance primed for the general crowd — consisting of both laymen and experts, radicals and moderates, aesthetes and documentary enthusiasts. In other words, a biopic of the man appears, by industrial and popular standards, overdue; and Tony Stone’s Ted K, its title aptly truncated, appears to fill this gap with a chronicling of Kaczynski’s retreat into the wilderness from larger civilization.
But try as it may to revitalize interest in a persona since memed to death by the Internet, or to revisit the political arguments that prompted him to sabotage national infrastructure and send pipe bombs through the mail, Ted K doesn’t quite accomplish either. The setup, in fact, is conventional to a fault, chronologically structured and superficially oriented. In Stone’s film, Sharlto Copley plays Kaczynski, appearing in medias res to smash up a winter lodge recently vacated by a family on holiday. He growls and snarls, periodically caught between rational intellection and hurled profanities, reminiscent of a dollar-store Vincent Gallo in his scruffy, unshaven masculinity. Ticking the usual checkboxes of timid, helpless, sensitive, and socially maladapted, Copley’s Kaczynski largely predicates his character on these lonesome attributes, enunciating with special care his low emotional quotient and awkwardness (alongside a certain antipathy) toward women. In multiple phone booth conversations with his mother and brother, Ted hollers at the world, begs for its financial support, and continues on an irrevocable descent toward radicalization, psychologically shut-in and isolated with a prodigal mathematical disposition and little else.
Taking many liberties with what it includes and omits about the Unabomber’s biography, Ted K more damningly reduces the viewer’s perception of its subject to easy caricature, borne out of a materialist conception of ideological interiority. Kaczynski’s reactions to industrial society and its future, though not necessarily inaccurate, are henceforth limited to the affective: screaming at jet planes and loud noise, cursing others’ comparative luck in the romantic department, and — telling of Stone’s demographic appeal — enmeshed in a delusional fantasy relationship, a trope straight out of Joker. The film’s valiant attempts to pique interest through the dramatizations of Kaczynski’s crimes meet with similar roadblocks, each bomb blast and casualty merely accentuating an overall dramatic effect whose false appeal to authenticity can’t quite mask its cheapness. Although it is claimed that Ted K “was made on the land where his cabin once stood and uses his words from the 25,000 pages of writing that filled his shelves to tell this story,” little more than what pop culture already knows is gleaned from its two hours. Within that same duration, James Benning’s Stemple Pass — also about Ted K, and situated likewise in the same wilderness he spent his anarchically formative years — reveals more about one man’s alienation under the cold flux of technological change, and does so paradoxically through four static, seasonal shots of the surrounding forests, overlaid with nothing more than diegetic sound and substantial voiceover from his diary. Regrettably, the most pedestrian biopics — Ted K among them — are frequently nothing more than their Wikipedia synopses.