Ted Bundy has always held a fascination in the nation’s mind, and it was really only a matter of time before someone such as him would become relevant again. Joe Berlinger, the man who directed and created the excellent Netflix documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, has done just that, and now brings us Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the lengthy-titled dramatization of Bundy and his longtime girlfriend, Liz Kloepfer, over the course of his serial killing spree. With Zac Efron as the killer himself, anticipation for this film was high, with the result being a bit of a mixed bag.
Berlinger is hardly a seasoned director, and in some ways that shows with this movie. While the movie is paced well (I was never bored over its 110 minute runtime), the way he chooses to tell this story does leave a bit to be desired. Much of the action is framed through Liz’s point of view, or, at least it tries to be (more on that in a minute), and by making this interesting choice, he limits the frame of the story. As a result, we spend a great deal of time seeing the “best” of Ted, mostly through a series of scenes that play out more like vignettes rather than a coherent whole. Early on there is a mixture of what appears to be actual footage and recreations, which I found interesting but a bit confusing since it is used nowhere else in the film. On the whole, this isn’t a bad directorial effort, just a slightly confusing and underwhelming one.
The movie’s plot tracks the relationship Liz and Ted share during the years that he is still committing his heinous crimes, all without showing any of them. This is a bold choice narratively, and it’s one that both does and doesn’t pan out for me. On one hand, I don’t think anyone really wants or needs to see Bundy’s rapes and murders recreated. On the other hand, the plot structure forces the viewer to sympathize with Bundy for most of the film’s running time, which is daring but also disrespectful. A more interesting and nuanced plot choice would be for the film to peek into the lives of his victims, to really sell the monster that this man is without showing acts of extreme violence. As it stands, the plot seems to want us to be on Bundy’s side, and while I admire the creative team for doing something different, I don’t feel that it entirely pays off.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
The acting in this film is very, very impressive. Efron had a lot of heavy lifting to do in order to shed his heartthrob persona, and he does so masterfully here. He completely disappears into the role of Bundy, bringing the killer’s trademark charm to the forefront while never losing the hints of menace to keep us on edge; he’s excellent. Lily Collins also turns in wonderful and nuanced work as Bundy’s conflicted, committed, and eventually disgusted girlfriend. She plays a very difficult role here, and does so with a great deal of poise. Elsewhere, Haley Joel Osment, Jim Parsons, and John Malkovich appear in supporting roles, with Malkovich being a real standout (as expected) as Judge Edward Cowart. The cast all turn in great performances here.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
The score here is pretty standard thriller fare, meaning it’s appropriate but not attention-grabbing, save for the the final scene which is put together perfectly. In some places I found the use of soundtrack a little jarring and poorly mixed, with a song’s vocals overlapping with dialogue and pulling me out of the moment a bit. Besides that, everything else sounded just fine.
From the first time we see him, I was really impressed with how the makeup team worked to turn Efron into Bundy. From his hair to his facial features, and especially his teeth, they make Efron the spitting image of the killer. While not quite as intensive as last year’s Vice, the makeup department deserves a lot of credit for this transformation, on top of Efron’s gutsy performance. The design team also nails the style and look of the Pacific Northwest in the 70’s, so kudos to them as well.
Having been one of the seemingly few who enjoyed Berlinger’s Ted Bundy docu-series, my anticipation was high for this movie. Efron was an inspired bit of casting for the killer, and the way they planned on telling the story held great promise. In the end, though, the movie feels limited by its narrative choices, never saying or showing us anything we haven’t already seen. It’s a perfectly competent drama/thriller, with a pair of truly excellent performances from the two leads, but it feels like it could have been so much more. If you’re a fan of true crime or tense dramas, this movie is easily worth a watch. If not, consider watching for the killer performances. You might just be surprised at what you find.