It’s no secret that society maintains a sick fascination with true crime and the various monsters behind it. From O.J. Simpson to Jeffrey Dahmer, there’s something morbidly addictive about fruitlessly trying to fit the puzzle pieces of these atrocious events and people together. It should come at no surprise that such tales bleed into all walks of narrative art, from literature to television to cinema. The most compelling of true crime art attempts to grapple with the bewildering entanglement of its central figure and act. One can examine the crime scene photos and watch the accused confess, but never without the nagging question itching a perverse complex in the back of the mind: how did this person commit this crime? Like staring at a car wreck, this voyeuristic observation of unthinkable behavior from a cool distance is a subconscious compulsion that practically forces itself to be heard.
Ted Bundy was a serial killer-rapist who murdered over thirty women between 1974-1978 in the most vicious and appalling of manners. Eight films have been made about him. The latest, Joe Berlinger‘s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, seeks to directly understand the charismatic control he wielded over the people in his life, along with the lingering fascination society still holds towards him. Casting the immensely charismatic Zac Efron as Bundy, Extremely Wicked follows the serial killer’s story half-heartedly through the eyes of his girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins) as she confronts the truth of his character. Unfortunately, while the film boasts a positively magnetic performance from Efron, it fails to substantially explore its intended conflict, and furthermore delivers its narrative in a manner that’s frustrating, boring, and painfully clumsy.
Berlinger’s principal and most fatal mistake is forgoing a more rigid point-of-view in favor of watching Efron entertain as Ted Bundy. The film very clearly wants to be from the point-of-view of Elizabeth Kendall, yet fails to really give her any meaningful characterization or voice. It certainly doesn’t help that Berlinger opts to devote just as much runtime, if not more, to watching Bundy make a circus of his final trial as it does spend time in Kendall’s shoes. Indeed, ironically enough, Berlinger falls for Bundy’s sick appeal just as much as his film sets out to understand and condemn it. If Extremely Wicked is intended to transpire from the perspectives of the various women Bundy has conned, then why does it follow him around, alone, just as often? At times, it feels as if the film is inexplicably trying to sow doubt over whether Bundy is even guilty, a truly bizarre misstep that’s as dumb and obvious as it is tedious to sit through.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile lives and dies at the foot of Zac Efron playing its central sicko. It’s impossible to deny that Efron isn’t at least entertaining in the role, playing the deplorable human being of Ted Bundy as the charming boy scout his defenders saw him. He doesn’t even resemble or act that similarly to Bundy, not even in the footage the film recreates (and then shows during the credits), but it’s nevertheless a compelling interpretation that saves the film from being completely unwatchable. The real Bundy talked and acted like a creepy used car salesman in every piece of documentary footage shot of him. Portraying him as the attractive and charismatic young man his victims saw him as is certainly an interesting route to pursue, though it fails, again, because the film never commits to a discernibly concrete point-of-view.
It’s lucky for Berlinger that Efron is good in the film, because the rest of the cast is about as lifeless and uninspired as they come. Lily Collins is almost completely limp and devoid of emotion in her crucial role as Bundy’s guilt-ridden ex, though that’s admittedly more of the fault of the screenwriter than the actress. John Malkovich and Jim Parsons both make appearances as Bundy’s presiding judge and prosecutor, respectively, but neither give more than made-for-television caricature performances of the real people they’re supposed to be; Parsons is especially awful. (As a side note, one has to wonder why Malkovich keeps appearing in mediocre Netflix original films. Between this, Velvet Buzzsaw, and Bird Box, his poor track record on these streaming releases is definitely below his caliber of acting.)
Though I’m always wary of movies centered around real-life atrocities, it’s certainly an admirable goal to dissect the sway of such horrors and dismantle the larger-than-life quality their monsters seized through infamy. 2004’s Downfall is exceptional for this very reason in its total evisceration of Adolf Hitler as anything more than a sick, pathetic racist. Yet Berlinger’s film never even comes close to the thoughtfulness displayed in Downfall, so intoxicated in Bundy’s charm itself that it mostly forgets that he was a necrophiliac who murdered dozens of women. One always has to be careful making movies that deal with the grisly deaths of real people. Extremely Wicked thankfully never comes close to anything as offensive or disgusting as Denis Villeneuve‘s school shooting reenactment Polytechnique, but it does demonstrate a degree of incomprehension towards the human weight of Ted Bundy’s actions. The fact that the film closes first with the names of his known victims, then the documentary footage of him recreated earlier in the film, is particularly telling of its lingering curiosity. Consciously or not, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile loses its way in trying to take down Ted Bundy as a figure of morbid public interest, falling for the same charismatic tricks the psychopath wielded just 30 years ago.