When a splashy trailer for Netflix’s star-studded Ted Bundy biopic dropped earlier this year, it set off a firestorm of controversy.
The tightly-edited clip for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile suggested a tongue-in-cheek approach to the sordid story, prompting comparisons to a heist movie and accusations that the film was glorifying Bundy. (The fact that the notorious serial killer was to be played by former teen idol Zac Efron certainly contributed to that impression.)
It turns out, the movie deserved the benefit of the doubt.
Directed by true crime veteran Joe Berlinger (best known for co-directing the Paradise Lost documentaries, which played a role in freeing three men wrongfully convicted as teens), Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is a serious-minded account that focuses on Bundy’s deluded attempts to assert his innocence.
Berlinger, who was also behind this year’s four-part documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, is intimately familiar with his subject. His treatment of the case is mostly accurate, always respectful, and often dry (contrary to the punchy trailers). The movie spends as much time showing Bundy poring over legal texts as it does on the killer’s dramatic escapes; most of the murders occur off-screen, to the point where they start to feel like a side plot; the grisly details are revealed in the matter-of-fact presentation of a Florida prosecutor (played with a mix of flash and exasperation by Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons).
You don’t see Bundy actually attack someone until the very end, as a reluctant death row confession gives way to a graphic flashback. The scene in question is shocking, especially considering the restraint shown up until that point – however, it’s also necessary, lest the film’s incomplete presentation of the case leave any doubt as to Bundy’s guilt.
In contrast to the detailed analysis found in Berlinger’s far better Bundy Tapes documentary, Extremely Wicked provides a very limited portrait of its subject, and often feels unfinished as a result.
The killer is shown through the eyes of his former girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall, whose life is upended when Bundy is accused of multiple murders in three difference states. The circumstances of the case are vague: we see Bundy arrested for kidnapping in a seemingly random traffic stop, befuddled and protesting his innocence. He tells Liz that he’s been set up by police, and that the charges against him are a misunderstanding, soon to be sorted out. She seems to believe him.
The script at this point strives to create some ambiguity around Bundy’s guilt, an apparent attempt to add suspense to the narrative. But it’s a half-hearted effort: the audience knows who they’re dealing with here, and the filmmakers know it too.
Efron’s portrayal doesn’t leave anything up for debate – his Bundy is so hollow, his superficial kindness so insincere, that it’s a wonder anyone was ever convinced by his nice-guy act. The stunt casting here works, with Efron’s winsome teen heartthrob persona shining through as Bundy tries to charm his way out of a murder conviction. His performance is more than a gimmick, though; Efron is most effective when the mask slips and Bundy’s affected bemusement gives way to petulance and rage.
Lily Collins is given less to work with as Liz. Her relationship with Bundy is barely explored beyond surface level – we see a smarmy meet-cute and a few sickeningly-sweet domestic scenes – leaving it hard to understand why she was so conflicted about his guilt. However, Collins excels in a later scene when Liz visits Bundy on death row, where she confronts him with a police photo of a mutilated victim. (The film could have benefited from a few more of these challenging interactions).
The movie is at its best when it emulates the documentary format. Berlinger chillingly juxtaposes contemporary news reports on the murders with idyllic home movies of Bundy and Kendall, and faithfully recreates incendiary courtroom scenes and obnoxious media interviews.
The Florida courthouse scenes are especially good. In addition to Parsons, the quirky John Malkovich is a welcome addition as a no-nonsense judge given to strange bursts of folksiness. The trial is also frequented by hordes of confused young women who find themselves strangely attracted to Bundy, their sympathy for him mirroring Liz’s (“”He just doesn’t look like the type to kill someone,” one says).
Extremely Wicked depicts this phenomenon but doesn’t explore it at length. Given the director’s experience chronicling sensational cases, this feels like a missed opportunity. Berlinger understands the complicated dynamics of these trials, and I expected the film to have some more insight into what drives observers to such extreme reactions.
Ultimately, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile suffers from not knowing what it wants to be, or whose story it wants to tell. As a result, it glosses over some of the more interesting aspects of the case (both in terms of the actual events and the implications of the public reaction). The chain of events may also be confusing to those not familiar with the story.
That said, the film is well-acted and makes an interesting companion to The Ted Bundy Tapes. It also provides a blueprint for how to tell true crime stories without exploiting victims or lionizing perpetrators.
Title: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Director: Joe Berlinger
Screenwriter: Michael Werwie