‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ is a complicated, worthwhile film
A review of the Zac Efron-led Ted Bundy film, on Netflix now
We tend to like our prestige true crime to be about a miscarriage of justice in some way — think the first season of Serial, where there are so many lingering questions all these years later that Sarah Koenig famously said she wasn’t sure if Adnan did it but that he definitely shouldn’t have been convicted; or The Jinx, where the guy who definitely did it was caught on a hot mic admitting that he did, after all, do it; or Making a Murderer, where a wrongful conviction, coerced confessions, and possibly police-planted evidence seem like evidence of a county-wide conspiracy.
In The Ted Bundy Tapes, Netflix’s four-hour docuseries from Joe Berlinger (who also directed Extremely Wicked…), we know he did it, and we know he fried for it, so the hook of the series comes instead from watching this absolute monster, this evil, insidious, and, yes, handsome man somehow convince people over and over and over that he’s innocent… Until, just before he dies, he admits it all.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Berlinger’s new movie which hit Netflix today, takes a slightly different approach. Contrary to much of the pre-release criticism and controversy sparked by its terrible trailer, the film doesn’t “glorify” Bundy’s crimes whatsoever. Instead, it handily sidesteps the “does depicting something on film necessarily glorify it?” argument by not depicting any of Bundy’s savagery on screen at all. All we know throughout the entire film is what Bundy’s girlfriend Liz (Lily Collins) knew — that she loved this charming man, she invited him into her life, she left her young daughter alone with him, and then suddenly he was in jail, accused of unspeakably heinous things in multiple states.
As in Berlinger’s docuseries (and, I guess, real life), Bundy in this film maintains his innocence throughout. So, even though we know what he did — it’s Ted freakin Bundy! — the film does a great job showing why it was so difficult for Liz to believe he would be capable of such vile things. There’s a constant tension at play here because of this. We’re used to watching things like this about miscarriages of justice, and after all, he’s Zac Efron, so we find ourselves ever-so-slightly wanting to root for him, until someone says the name Ted Bundy, or we get a newsreel description of the Chi Omega sorority slayings, and suddenly we’re reminded — oh. Fuck. Right. Of course he did it.
Casting a heartthrob like Efron goes a long way toward making this tension work, and in fact, the audience’s tension in wanting to believe him despite knowing better is a direct result of the tension between Efron’s star image and the character he’s playing here, and the movie wouldn’t work nearly as well without it. Bundy was a heartthrob, too, a media sensation that drew girls from around the country to sit in at his trial… even though, now, it’s difficult to look back at photos of him and not think we can see the evil lurking behind that charismatic grin. Every photo of Bundy now carries a dark portent; even in stills of him just hanging out with his family and friends, we want to scream at them, scream for them, for not noticing what he was doing when the sun went down.
Here, Zac Efron brings a decade and change of All-American star-image and charm to the role, and consequently he makes Bundy’s heartthrob status visible again — nearly inexplicable to us now, decades removed, looking at those photos of Bundy alongside photos of his victims and wondering how anyone could have fallen under his sway. Efron is practically a chameleon here, just like Bundy was, almost disappearing into the part. It’s that almost that makes his performance work so well; in other words, it’s thrilling to be invited to see the evil lurking behind his charismatic grin, just like the country was captivated by the idea that there might be a killer behind Bundy’s facade, too.
Structurally, sure, it’s kind of a mess. It’s constantly bouncing around in time, and when Bundy is locked up in Colorado and Florida and Utah while his girlfriend is back in Seattle, a lot of the jumps between the two feel unmotivated and serve to undercut the tension instead of enhancing it. Since Liz is often just lounging around her house drinking her sadness away, we feel like we hit a wall when we cut from, say, one of Bundy’s prison escapes to her sitting on the couch staring into space. Lily Collins does a fantastic job with what she’s given to work with, as does Kaya Scodelario as the woman Bundy famously married in court during his trial, but aside from that, the other characters barely register as people. Particularly underserved is Haley Joel Osment’s character, who I’m not even sure has a name that’s said on screen, playing Liz’s caring coworker who recognizes how distraught she is over the trial and does what he can to cheer her up. It’s a part that could have worked well in contrast with Efron’s performance as Bundy, but instead we’re inclined to agree with Bundy when he calls Liz, gets Osment instead, and asks, “…Who are you?”
Overall, though, this is a worthy addition to a long lineage of Bundy media that investigates not only his complicated position in the American imagination — Norman Bates made flesh, the handsome, all-American boy who hid a savage, woman-hating secret — but also our own complicated position as spectators who are fascinated by him. This lineage goes all the way back to Ann Rule’s seminal, career-making The Stranger Beside Me; in that book, Rule writes about her own friendship with Bundy, which prevented her from realizing the extent of his evil for a long time. She was working on a book about the then-uncaptured serial killer who was terrorizing coeds around the Pacific Northwest, while being a close friend of Ted’s; once she realized that her friend had indeed done the terrible things she was writing about, she worked through her resulting guilt and trauma in the book. It’s excellent. (The 2003 Barbara Hershey-starring film adaptation, not so much). Extremely Wicked etc isn’t as insightful as that book, which I think prefigured so much of what we think of as prestige true-crime today, and it’s not as in-depth as Berlinger’s own Ted Bundy Tapes. But, thanks to Efron’s performance and the resulting questions about our own complicity in wanting to believe handsome, charismatic men, this film is its own beast, one well worth reckoning with.