Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
“There are things you don’t know… that will shock you beyond your worst nightmares.”
This line, delivered by a leading homicide detective speaking to Elizabeth Kloepfer, real-life girlfriend of Ted Bundy, is one of the few times the true horror of Ted Bundy’s murderous rampage is hinted at in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Netflix’s new dramatic companion piece to this year’s Conversations with a Killer. That it’s delivered with such laughable theatrics, a false sense of drama imitating a real, tangible drama explored virtually nowhere else in the film’s running time, is disappointing–making one of my most anticipated films of the year a deflating misfire of odd tonal shifts and unsure direction.
That the film struggles so much with its identity is as crushing as it is because of the team behind it. Joe Berlinger, who also directed the excellent Netflix companion documentary, seems to treat this material with a concerning sense of “did-he-or-didn’t-he?”, an issue that plagues the film in more ways than one, as the entire film ends up playing as a comedic cat-and-mouse farce that may not have had malicious motivations, but does wind up being an odd case of misdirection and uncertain personality.
This is where another issue arises: could this movie have worked at all?The Ted Bundy Tapes worked very well because we as an audience knew from beginning to end of Bundy’s destructive indifference to human life, and of his vicious murder spree, allowing the documentary’s format to be easily digestible with interesting story notes emerging that were captivating and well delivered. Bundy’s story (or, should we say, the story of his victims), is one to be told straight-up with facts and information.
A drama, though, is a trickier tightrope to walk.
How does a movie like this get made? How does one properly film a dramatization of a serial killer so normal, handsome, and charming; a man who was able to brutally murder and mutilate women by way of his looks and charisma; a man who was so smart and educated he represented himself in court, essentially making the court appearances a piece of consumerism and entertaining national theater? How does this kind of material walk this specific tightrope without falling off? It seems that despite all efforts, this was just an unfortunate case of inevitability.
The saving grace of Berlinger’s film, though, is the pair of leads, and there really isn’t a way to overstate just how responsible these two are for making the movie as watchable as it is. As the film tries to find its tone and balance, we shift from Bundy to Kloepfer quite often, and while the film never seems to understand who it wants to highlight more, both Zac Efron and Lily Collins shine bright in some of the best performances of their careers.
While Extremely Wicked credits Kloepfer’s memoir of her life with Bundy as its source of inspiration (and it’s kind of evident through the script that it wanted to focus on her story), the finished product fails to give Collins the screen time she deserved in an effort to tell that story, leading me to question just how much writer Michael Werwie really looked into that story while writing the screenplay. Collins does wonders with what she is given, as disjointed and muddled as it may be.
The first act of the film, which moves staggeringly fast through Bundy’s crimes (it begins after Bundy has began his spree), lets Collins stare unsure at Bundy, pondering whether or not the man she loves could be the monster the papers are making him out to be. When Haley Joel Osment (and his unchanged 10-year-old face) shows up to help Kloepfer move past Bundy, Collins’ performance ramps up as she takes on the role of grief and denial stricken widow of sorts, who has just learned that the man she trusted around her child, the most vulnerable part of her life, was likely responsible for the demise of many women her very child would grow up to be. It’s tragic, and I was particularly moved by what she was able to pull off with such little material.
As Bundy, Efron is the biggest pull the movie has, and he is terrific in the role, expectedly personifying Bundy’s charm and wit, while also giving the slightest glimmer of madness behind the eyes. Efron has always been one of Hollywood’s unsung graces, a true classic Hollywood movie star who is able to do essentially anything and everything a role would require of him, and this role is perfect for a broader evaluation of his talents.
And yet, the bad taste still remains. It’s just unfortunate that Berlinger and company went the comedic route in telling this story, never showing a Bundy murder for the majority of its running time, leading the film to boldly present Bundy as “a potential murderer who may have been framed!” and not one of America’s most notorious and vicious serial killers and rapists.
When the film’s ending finally draws near, it has its best scene, Bundy simply sitting behind a glass wall talking to Kloepfer through the jail phone. It’s incredibly intense, captivating, and unsettling, but by then, I had just endured an hour of The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons leading a trial in front John Malkovitch’s judge, and at that point, I had already checked out.