A surprisingly solid performance by Zac Efron is wasted on an uneven drama about why chicks dig Ted Bundy.
To stumble across a post online in which someone has declared Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold as “bae,” or expresses sympathy for Jeffrey Dahmer, is to feel like you’re having a stroke. Yet, true crime groupies thrive on the internet, where no one ever tells you “hey, that’s really weird.” Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is a movie that purports to explore that mindset, but, burdened with clumsy pacing and jarring tonal shifts, misses the mark.
Released in tandem with a documentary also directed by Berlinger, it’s based on a book by a longtime girlfriend of Ted Bundy, the first serial killer to have vocal, ardent female “fans,” some of whom came to court with similar hairstyles and jewelry as his thirty confirmed victims. It makes sense that, when compared to a hulking ogre like Edmund Kemper, or a shapeless baby-man like David Berkowitz, the merely average looking Bundy would be elevated to a fourth Hemsworth brother in some people’s eyes. Nevertheless, it was extremely generous to cast Mark Harmon to play Bundy in the 1985 TV movie The Deliberate Stranger, and it’s damn near delusional to cast Zac Efron, complete with rippling abs, bulging biceps, and more than one shot of his bare butt. That Bundy is portrayed as a total fucking stud, dude is one of the film’s many issues with tone and perspective.
The film opens in 1969, when Ted, then a law student, meets Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) and immediately falls for her, as she falls even harder for him. Ted’s such a neat guy that he doesn’t even mind that Liz is a single mother. In fact, it’s barely twelve hours after they first meet that he’s taking on childcare duties and making breakfast for Liz’s toddler daughter. This should be a gigantic red flag, but, as we know from countless true crime shows, is rarely seen as one. Insincerity all but oozes out of Ted’s pores, but Liz moves him in with her and her daughter right away, as home movie footage of the happy new family is intercut with real-life news footage reporting on a series of unsolved murders of beautiful young college students.
No time is wasted before Ted is a suspect in a number of rape and attempted kidnapping cases, the accusations of which he seems more annoyed about than anxious. Liz, who comes off as dumb as a bag of hammers until the plot no longer requires her to be, will hear no suggestion that he might be guilty. If she expresses even the slightest bit of doubt, all Ted has to do is offer to take her daughter out for ice cream and all is immediately forgotten. It can be assumed that neediness and low self-esteem keep Liz hanging on to Ted, even after he’s arraigned on murder charges and twice escapes custody. Little of that that is explored, however, as much of the second half of the film is devoted to Ted’s bizarre notoriety and antics while on trial.
Extremely Wicked, etc. plays as weirdly suspenseful, suggesting that the audience doesn’t know how the case played out in real life.
After he’s charged with multiple brutal murders, Ted works the news cameras like a game show host. While he blossoms in the spotlight like a hothouse flower, Liz secludes herself in her home, pale and withered as someone dying of consumption. Even after she finds herself a nice new boyfriend (played by, of all people, Haley Joel Osment), she still curls up in bed and reminisces about the good times with Ted, which involve kissing, and, well, more kissing. Because Berlinger was intent on making the film a highlight reel of all the most well-known moments in the Bundy case (“Here’s Ted driving around in a Volkswagen,” “Here’s Ted proposing to his new girlfriend in the middle of the courtroom”), we only get a surface look at Ted and Liz’s relationship. Thus, we’re left with no idea why, even years later and long after Ted has moved on to a new partner, the mousy Carole Ann (Kaya Scodelario), Liz still laments the end of their relationship.
Extremely Wicked, etc. plays as weirdly suspenseful, suggesting that the audience doesn’t know how the case played out in real life. Ted cries when he’s alone and hangs up his stepdaughter’s artwork in his cell, and the film seems to be implying that there might be a chance he didn’t hurt anyone. In truth, of course, there was never once a point in the investigation where, after Bundy became the primary suspect, the evidence against him was anything less than rock solid. Things don’t really start getting juicy until a jailhouse encounter between Ted and Liz late in the film, when Ted finally shows who he really is. Efron is surprisingly solid, as is Collins, and John Malkovich, portraying the judge presiding over Bundy’s Florida murder trial. The movie does them no favors with cutesy, on the nose music cues, like Ted escaping from a courthouse window to the tune of “The Letter” (“Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane/ain’t got time to take a fast train…”), and pointless “hey, look who it is” supporting roles, like Jim Parsons as a prosecutor, and Metallica’s James Hetfield playing a cop.
Joe Berlinger is probably best known for directing the haunting Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, a documentary about teenagers railroaded into multiple murder convictions. Like Extremely Wicked, part of its focus was how, even in something as serious as a murder investigation, people will often base their opinion on the accused party’s guilt or innocence according to what they look like. In the earlier film, it was the opposite problem: people assumed that because primary suspect Damien Echols dressed in black and wore his hair long it meant he was more likely to have sexually assaulted and killed three children. It’s a powerful indictment on how shallow, and, frankly, not too bright, the average person is.
In Extremely Wicked, Berlinger doesn’t offer much of an explanation for why women were so fascinated with Ted Bundy other than “Well, you see, he’s really handsome.” Which, when you’re talking about Zac Efron, fine. When you’re talking about the real Ted Bundy, it becomes a little murkier, a little more puzzling and disturbing. There’s a good story to be told about it, but it’s not this one. When a witness rolls his eyes at Ted’s courtroom mugging and grandstanding while not very effectively representing himself as counsel, so does the audience. Why did people–or, more specifically, women–buy his nonsense? Even after Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, we still don’t know.