Ted K. is a film about a man who lives in a cabin in the Montana wilderness. The man was a child genius who attended Harvard University when he was only 16. He worked briefly as a professor but, in the early 70s, he started to retreat from society. He moved into a tiny cabin, one that he had previously built with his brother. The man’s name is Ted Kaczynski. He would later be known as the Unabomber. As of today, he is known as prisoner #04475-046 at a Colorado supermax prison.
When Ted K. begins, Ted (played by Sharlto Copley) has been living in the cabin for close to ten years. He is usually unshaven and unbathed. He loves the wilderness but he hates all evidence of technology. He screams at jets as they fly overhead. When a group of vacationers ride their snowmobiles across his property, Ted responds by breaking into their house and taking an axe to their snowmobiles. Ted carries on an inner dialogue with himself, talking about how technology and progress are destroying the world. He also talks about how he can’t handle the idea of ever having to take orders from a woman. Ted hunts a rabbit and then thanks its spirit for giving up its life so that he could eat. I’ve never quite understood people who do that. Is the spirt of the rabbit supposed to be happy that its body is getting eaten just because the schmuck who shot it offered up some halfass prayer?
Sometimes, Ted goes into town and he calls his mom on an old payphone, one that regularly steals his coins. He usually calls to demand money because Ted is incapable of holding down a job. Ted yells at his mom, blaming her for his lack of social skills and sexual experience. Ted swears that he will never again speak to his brother. Later, Ted calls his brother to beg for money and swears that he will never again speak to their mother. When he’s not in front of the payphone, he can be found buying tools at the local hardware store. He also sometimes goes out so that he can peep through windows and point his rifle at anyone who he sees. He gets especially upset when he sees a man and woman about to make love. Little seems to anger Ted more than knowing that there are actually happy people in the world.
In short, Ted Kaczynski is a loser, an incel who is bitter about having never been able to get his once promising life together. He hates everyone, with the exception of the always-sympathetic girlfriend who pops up in his fantasies. Every loser needs someone or something to blame and Ted challenges his self-loathing and his sexual frustration into rage against modern society. When he first appears in the film, Ted has already made his first bomb. As the film progresses, he starts to send his bombs out. Some, he mails. Some, he leaves sitting in front of computer stores and university buildings. Eventually, he becomes the most wanted man in the country but Ted has an offer to make to the authorities. If they just let him publish his manifesto, he’ll call of his reign of terror….
Ted K tells the story of Kaczynski’s life in Montana, often using passages lifted straight from Kaczynski’s journals to illustrate his inner thoughts. It’s an interesting film because, on the one hand, it’s clearly sympathetic to Kaczynski’s feelings about technology. The film starts with a slow motion shot that makes the snowmobiles plowing through Montana wilderness look like an invading, faceless army. Shots of blissful and silent nature are contrasted with shots of lumber mills, airplanes, and humming electrical wires. On the other hand, the film never makes the mistake of trying to turn Kaczynski himself into a heroic character. Ted is a creep from the minute that he first appears and he assures us in his own words that his main goal is to get revenge on a world that he feels has rejected him. He’s a misogynist who alienates everyone that he meets and who tries to hide his insecurity behind a projected air of arrogance. There are a few scenes in which Ted lowers his mask just enough to reveal his loneliness and that he’s someone who is incapable of understanding how communication works. He desperately wants to be able to talk to people and have someone in his life but he doesn’t know how to do it. His natural awkwardness gets in the way every time. Ted turns his anger out on the world. He may claim that he’s angry with what technology had done to society but the truth of the matter is that he’s angry at a world that has passed him by. Retreating to a cabin to seek enlightenment is charming when someone is in their 20s but far less impressive when that person is nearly 40.
With a two-hour running time, Ted K runs a bit long. The film’s final 30 minutes seem to move slowly, largely because we already know how the story is going to end. That said, Sharlto Copley makes Ted into a compelling character without ever making the mistake of trying to make him sympathetic. Director Tony Stone and cinematographer Nathan Corbin gives us some truly striking shots of the Montana wilderness. (At the very least, one can see why Ted would view it as being a potential paradise.) Blanck Mass provides a wonderfully ominous score, one that puts the viewer straight into Ted’s mind. Ted K deserves credit for both its refusal to idealize Kaczynski and also its attempt to understand just what exactly causes him to take the actions that he did. It makes for a valuable study of a man who has influenced terrorists on both the Left and the Far Right.
Incidentally, I once took a philosophy class where the TA was a huge Kaczynski fan. He suggested that everyone read the Unabomber Manifesto and “judge it by what it says, not what the author did.” I couldn’t get past the first paragraph.
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