Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, 2019
Directed by Joe Berlinger.
Starring Zac Efron, Lily Collins, John Malkovich, Kaya Scodelario, Jeffrey Donovan, Angela Sarafyan, Grace Victoria Cox, Kevin McClatchy, Jim Parsons, Dylan Baker, Terry Kinney, James Hetfield, Morgan Pyle, Grace Balbo, Haley Joel Osment, and Brian Geraghty.
A courtroom frenzy ensues and sweeps 1970s America when a young single mother reluctantly tips the attention of a widespread manhunt toward her longtime boyfriend, Ted Bundy.
It becomes clear early on during Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile that director Joe Berlinger (operating within his area of expertise) is actually going to present the numerous courtroom proceedings of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy as a mystery of sorts despite everyone (I hope) already knowing some of the details of this monster’s capabilities. It’s also a questionable choice but ultimately one that pays off thanks to a career-best performance from pretty boy Zac Efron effectively channeling the characteristics of the cunning and handsome murderer, but most importantly, the conviction behind his own lies and pleas of not guilty. By the end, viewers are basically wondering if Ted Bundy had some kind of split personality disorder and doesn’t even remember the killings; Zac Efron is that convincing as everything from a lover to a family man to an intelligent, seemingly well-intentioned law student.
That’s not to say I was fooled into believing he was innocent (I don’t think that’s even possible unless you live under a rock), but there is something to admire about the bold and subversive storytelling that explores the humanity of a despicable person rather than indulging in reenactments of their most brutal crimes. Sure, there is much talk of missing persons and testaments from escaped victims during the various courtroom trials, but the story here is about the dissonance between disturbing deeds and the functional productive member of society.
This approach also works well as it allows the narrative (based on Elizabeth Kendall’s book The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy and written by Michael Werwie) to get inside the head of Ted Bundy’s longtime romantic partner Liz (Lily Collins) dealing with the possibility that the man she thinks she knows more than anyone does is wrongfully being pursued by the FBI and being accused of crimes he could never commit. In many ways, it’s a shame the majority of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile doesn’t follow her, as Lily Collins really has a handle on the conflicted and shifting emotions of the character, going from immensely supportive to staring her delusions right in the face to owning up to her guilt (she believes that if she had caught on to Ted’s behavior sooner she could have saved some of these girls). Unfortunately, it’s only the first and third acts that give her juicy material, whereas throughout most of the middle portion she is seen reading Papillon and confiding in a rebound love interest coworker played by Haley Joel Osment.
With that said, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile does disappointingly settle into the most mundane routine possible for this story, chronicling every capture and escape and courtroom battle, flying through 20 years of Ted Bundy’s life at such a rapid speed (the film does not even crack two hours) it not only diminishes some of the emotional value, it undercuts the character arcs of the supporting cast. At least the final leg of the film adds notable actors such as Jim Parsons and John Malkovich (the latter employs his typical sardonic wit but with a nuance that imbues the humor with a sense of compassion for the tragedy surrounding the room) in key roles, and attempts to dissect the trial from multiple angles. The media wanted nonstop coverage to the point where cameras were placed into the courtroom for news coverage, many women admitted in interviews they had a strange sexual attraction to Ted Bundy, and Ted himself made a mockery of the proceedings firmly believing in his own self-professed innocence.
The problem is that much of this is directed with a scattershot approach that doesn’t elaborate or say much of anything about these things beyond the basics, which being honest, most people already know. Everything comes back to Zac Efron’s Ted Bundy, and although he is downright captivating in the role, it’s also a hindrance to the film as large portions of the story don’t exactly dive into his psyche. For those that don’t have firsthand knowledge of these legal battles, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile might pack a little something extra, but the rest will want more character work and definitely more focus on those closest to him that the murders affected. Again, Lily Collins is terrific, but there’s a case to be made that she’s also wasted in favor of Ted Bundy. And I don’t know about you, but having seen a number of profiles on Ted Bundy, a film focusing on someone else entirely would be the most refreshing course of action, and from what we do get, an experiment that would yield compelling results.
There is also a subplot showing the reignited romance between Ted Bundy and Carole Anne Boone (some outstanding and physically transformative work from Kaya Scodelario) who went on to support him during the darkest of times, but that too is uninteresting territory compared to anytime Liz is on screen with something to actually do. The film practically wants to be a documentary more than anything, but even with those creative frustrations, it’s difficult to deny that the movie mostly works due to the acting.
If there’s ever a moment where Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile truly comes alive, it’s whenever Zac Efron and Lily Collins interact with one another, as a couple or during penitentiary visits. There are subtle gestures (that are unnecessarily shown again during an ending montage for the less observant) within many of Ted’s actions suggesting that, for whatever reason, he is holding in the beast inside because he genuinely loves Liz. What makes her different? I couldn’t tell you, and unfortunately, the movie isn’t really interested in exploring that dynamic either. Thankfully, Zac Efron’s commitment is enough to keep things on track, even if Ted Bundy is actually the least interesting aspect of the movie.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com