For a movie about Ted Bundy – the serial killer synonymous with deception who confessed on death row to butchering at least 30 women throughout the 1970s – Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile benefits from its nearly total concealment of violence. Based around a portfolio of villainy and cruelty similar to that of a slasher icon, Extremely Wicked is careful not to exploit the heinous nature of Bundy’s acts, and commendably so. But it’s also a rare and frustrating film, in that its shortcomings don’t come from an unawareness of what it wants to say, but rather an indecisiveness in choosing which way to say it.
Directed by Joe Berlinger, who’s following his Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes with a companion full-length picture, Extremely Wicked examines the suaveness with which the murderer efficiently blinded a good portion of America to the truth – a truth he withheld almost until the bitter end. When told through the perspective of his longtime girlfriend, Liz (Lily Collins), the film is powerful and tragic as a reminder that we can be fooled by those we love and those who love us most.
Starting out in Seattle, 1969, as single mother Liz is enchanted by bartender Ted (Zac Efron), we watch as he becomes an immediate part of her and her daughter’s life (the next morning, he’s prepping omelettes for the two with a knife large enough to snatch our attention). But their honeymoon phase is quickly spoiled once Ted’s accused of aggravated assault, and Liz is bombarded by his insistences of conspiracy, and her own turmoil as the evidence against him piles up – it seems wherever he goes, bodies follow.
Unfortunately, Extremely Wicked doesn’t always stick with Liz’s point-of-view. The second half of the film trades her struggling rationalizations in for an impressive, but otherwise distracting display of charm from Efron in court. We experience the country fall under his spell (hard) and see in Efron what many saw in Bundy back then. It certainly didn’t help that those who were supposed to be in command of the situation, like Judge Edward D. Cowart (played with and for amusement by John Malkovich), were similarly caught up in Bundy’s showmanship.
But just like the cameras that covered Ted’s trial back in 1979 – his was the first televised trial in American history – Berlinger cannot resist having Bundy onscreen, and Liz becomes a secondary character in the back half of her own story.
With that said, the temptation is fathomable. Efron as Bundy is chilling and true. To say the High School Musical heartthrob was born to play this role may be a bit of a strange prophecy, but he has at his disposal a personal and expansive vault of charm to portray the killer’s trademark illusory charisma. He also, and more importantly, finds ways to capture the malevolence lurking beneath the surface. There’s one scene that takes place at a dog pound. One pup, after peering into the convincing nothingness behind Efron’s eyes, starts growling and whimpering; it didn’t find a family that day.
Much of the film feels stuck between these two components and rather than picking one to explore in depth, it attempts to find a middle ground in its exhibition that ultimately gives the impression of an unsure project. The Bundy story has enough draw in its subject’s unique combination of allure and wickedness to keep audiences intrigued – it’s terrifying how quickly he manages to escape not one, but two jails and disappear into another, unknowing community – but in terms of tone, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile never quite figures it out.
Extremely Wicked wobbles between its two best, but unfortunately, contrasting features: Efron’s eerily seductive performance, and the psychological experience of loving a camouflaged monster.