Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, 2019.
Directed by Joe Berlinger.
Starring Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, Jim Parsons, John Malkovich and Haley Joel Osment.
Through the eyes of his long-term girlfriend, we see the net close in on serial killer Ted Bundy, after years of getting away with his violent murders.
For all of its many flaws, this Ted Bundy biopic from veteran documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger – who also recently helmed Netflix’s docu-series The Ted Bundy Tapes – does its best to offer up more than a leering, blood-soaked rendition of Bundy’s 1970s killing spree, where he murdered more than 30 people.
It’s fair to say that Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile – titled after the closing remarks handed down by the judge at his trial – is not quite the fully accessible primer on Bundy’s (Zac Efron) crimes you might be expecting, and is certainly best recommended to those with some cursory prior knowledge of what transpired.
This is especially apparent during the film’s wonky opening act, which sends viewers into a tailspin with its busy editing, leaping between time periods even before establishing quite what Bundy was guilty of. In this stead the film seems to assume audiences have seen The Ted Bundy Tapes already, omitting fairly basic facts which, to the uninitiated, would surely seem confusing.
And though this is certainly a problematic narrative thread running throughout Berlinger’s film, it becomes less of an issue once the preambles are dispensed with and the film crystallises as a two-hander character study of not only Bundy but also his partner, Liz Kendall (Lily Collins).
And this certainly is a Character Study rather than a Serial Killer Movie, so if you’re tuning in to witness gory murder scenes and a David Fincher-level of rigorous technical detail, you may find yourself disappointed.
This leads to the smartest and most successful choice in Michael Werwie’s script, however, to depict Bundy in all of his deluded “innocence”, touting a victim complex which cements not only how he won over droves of impressionable young women, but possibly steals perverse sympathy from Netflix viewers also.
But the trick wouldn’t work without a suitably charismatic lead actor to play Bundy, and in Zac Efron Berlinger certainly lucked out. It’s often noted that Bundy’s handsomeness and jovial charm rewrote the rule book on what a serial killer could look like in the minds of the general public, playing-up the notion that a violent psychopath might be living in your very midst.
And Efron’s career largely being defined by his work in easy-going comedies is precisely what makes him so perfect for this role, allowing him and Berlinger to cleverly re-contextualise that warmth and affability, to depict a smooth-talker who managed to conceal his true nature from both the general public and those closest to him.
It’s a shame that the overall piece doesn’t feel like a holistic encapsulation of Bundy’s life nor does it take a psycho-drama deep-dive ala Netflix’s own Mindhunter, but Efron does a splendid job with the material given, and for anyone unconvinced by his dramatic chops – here they are in full force.
That’s not to forget a highly compelling performance from Collins also, who as the guilt-ridden woman who lived through Bundy’s crimes, is able to slowly appreciate that she herself was just another victim of the man’s pervasive manipulation. Transcending the cliche of the passive, long-suffering partner, Collins brings a great deal of weight to the personal toll of Bundy’s actions, even if not all of them ended in death.
Elsewhere, the supporting cast is absolutely stacked, though great character actors like Dylan Baker and Terry Kinney are sadly given little to do. Casting John Malkovich as the judge who sentenced Bundy to death might seem a touch on-the-nose for a production this grounded, but he does a fine job disappearing into the role, and the same can be said for Jim Parsons, who is unexpectedly fitting as the state’s lead prosecutor. And there’s also a neat role for Haley Joel Osment as Liz’s new partner Jerry.
In differing regards this is a film both excessive and restrained; it ties itself in knots editing-wise and feels a little over-eager to rush through the main beats, proving itself a bit of a head-scratcher for those unfamiliar with Bundy’s crimes.
But it also smartly constructs a narrative largely from Bundy’s own perspective while refusing to deign to grisly exploitation. Some might decry this approach as denying the victims agency, yet it’s fair to say that Liz herself acts as a shattering avatar for the enormity of Bundy’s crimes both physical and emotional.
Though rather workmanlike as a true crime bio, Berlinger’s film serves as a fine platform for Zac Efron’s insidiously spellbinding performance.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.