Dir: Joe Berlinger. Starring Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, and John Malkovich. 15 cert, 110 mins
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile was always destined for controversy. It’s the fate of any film that would dare tell the story of Ted Bundy, one of America’s most notorious serial killers. And yet, it’s been a particularly bumpy road for director Joe Berlinger, after the film’s first trailer, released to coincide with its Sundance Film Festival premiere, presented something truly alarming. Here was a snapshot of Bundy – the man who, before his execution in 1989, confessed to the murder of 30 young women and girls, with the total number of victims thought to be much higher – played by Zac Efron as a conman antihero, à la Catch Me If You Can, evading the law to a gritty rock soundtrack.
Yet, the truth is, it’s not moral vacuity that makes the film feel so unsatisfactory as a portrait of Bundy and his crimes. Rather, the director’s own past as a true-crime documentarian – his series Conversations With a Killer, sourced from more than 100 hours of Bundy footage, was released on Netflix earlier this year – results in a film so fixated on observation that we’re left without hope of understanding Bundy’s mind and the profound horrors that lay deep within it. Extremely Wicked certainly doesn’t glamourise Bundy, but it does somewhat sanitise him.
The film attempts to reframe Bundy’s story through the perspective of Elizabeth Kloepfer, a single mother who remained his girlfriend well into his incarceration in 1976. In Berlinger’s film, she’s renamed Liz Kendall, as she calls herself in the autobiography that Michael Werwie’s screenplay takes its basis from. As played by Lily Collins, Liz allows us to explore the lingering mystery of Bundy: how could a man who seemed so normal to the outside world be capable of such depravity? It’s an interesting approach that offsets many of the complaints that our true-crime obsessions risk disregarding the victims. Liz may have been spared, but she knew too well what a destructive force he was on the world.
But it’s a premise that Extremely Wicked struggles to commit to. Berlinger clearly has a desire for accuracy (the real footage shown during the credits attests to how painstakingly the courtroom scenes were recreated), and the film is too often distracted by the more well-documented aspects of Bundy’s life: his first escape from the Pitkin County Courthouse in Aspen, his second from a jail in Colorado Springs and the amateur dramatics of his trial – the first to ever be televised, where he handled much of his own defence. Over the course of the film, Liz’s story is slowly taken from her and, despite Collins’s best efforts, she’s left with little to do but to wring her hands and cry.
It’s the source of the film’s biggest issue. Through her eyes, we’re meant to believe his many protestations of innocence and deny his crimes until it’s far too late. The film deliberately withholds any depiction of the murders until the final scene, in what’s meant to be an empathetic gut punch, when Liz finally has to come face-to-face with the truth. Yet, since the film can’t help but be fascinated (like so much of America was) with Bundy himself, it no longer belongs to her, but to him instead. Liz’s denials become Bundy’s delusions and, because of that, we’re treated to an odd framing of the story where, if we didn’t know this was about a serial killer, it’d be easy to assume the story was about an innocent man separated from his true love, doing anything he can to return to her side.
Efron’s also left somewhat at a loss by the film. The actor has not fought as viciously against his Disney pedigree and matinee idol looks as so many of his peers have, but his casting as Bundy is rather ingenious. Those same piercing blue eyes that made teens swoon in the High School Musical-era now hide the secrets of the most extreme brutality. He’s dipped his toe in darker material before (2012’s The Paperboy, namely), but Extremely Wicked also reveals what a skilled imitator he is. He bottles Bundy’s jittery confidence, making the boldest of declarations (“I’m more popular than Disney World!”), all while his eyes seem to search constantly for the nearest exit.
But, much like the film itself, Efron doesn’t quite know how to handle Bundy outside of the courtroom, when the cameras are turned off and the press has retreated. He has little to work with, since the narrative makes such an effort to conceal Bundy’s darkness. Perhaps no film could ever hope to comprehend this breed of evil, but with Extremely Wicked, we’re left more in the dark than ever.
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