Zac Efron shines in Ted Bundy courtroom drama Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, as a disturbed yet exquisitely charming serial killer.
Why are we so fascinated by serial killers? As I watched Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, this question came to mind. And it has been asked a million times by psychologists and sociologist alike: with the increasing number of graphic crime documentaries and shocking serial-killer shows that are being released every month, our morbid fascination with gruesome murders continues to be a trending topic. Does our obsession for the worst kind of serial killers come from the fact that we compare them to our favourite fictional characters? Or is it that we get the same kind of “scary fun/guilty pleasure” kick that children experience with monster movies (here’s an interesting article about our fascination with serial killers!)? One thing is certain: films and shows about horrific crimes and disquieting people continue to be made, and we continue to watch them.
What makes this trend even more intriguing is that the movies and shows we watch have more in common than their subject matter alone. As our choice of shocking images to watch increases by the day, it is the “intellectual” serial killer story that really manages to grab our interest. Witnessing unimaginable violence is not enough to keep us entertained: what we’re interested in is the clever but somewhat damaged character that almost gets away with his crime. We want to know what kind of traumatic event can turn a person into a monster and drive them to commit such terrible acts of violence, but that’s not all. In our quest to find out exactly how much of a monster a human being can become, there’s always one question that comes to our mind: how can a person capable of commiting such evil, unspeakable acts still manage to hide in plain sight in our society?
Judging by its captivating synopsis and catchy title, Joe Berlinger’s drama would seem to tick all the boxes of one of those fascinating and yet unsettling stories we often find ourselves drawn to. Not only is it about one of the most notorious and controversial serial killers of our time, but it’s also based on a book written by Bundy’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendall (“The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy“), and the story itself is also explored from Kendall’s perspective. The expectations were high for Berlinger’s film, and, much to his credit, not only does the director manage to tell an important story with a protagonist that is equally compelling and eerie, but he also gives us a fresh take on a well-known figure, with psychological insight, witty dialogues, excellent acting and unexpected appearences. Yet, this brilliantly executed drama lacks the one thing that would have made it exceptional: to put it simply, Berlinger’s Bundy is not “shockingly evil” at all.
Berlinger is no stranger to crime films and shows. From acclaimed documentaries like Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hill and Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger to docu-series such as Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers, Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders, Wrong Man and Gone: The Forgotten Women of Ohio, the Oscar-nominated director has been addressing shocking murder trials and mysterious disappearences for over twenty years. In many of his past documentaries, he focused on the most infamous criminals and looked at evidence, so it makes sense for him to be behind a show like Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, in which he deconstructed the serial killer’s mind and even included interviews with Bundy on death row. But if the director’s Netflix documentary analysed facts and looked at real footage and hard evidence, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile does the exact opposite, by concentrating on the charming man rather than on the criminal.
If it weren’t for the few shots of Bundy in prison, it wouldn’t be hard to mistake Extremely Wicked for a boy-meets-girl rom-com at first. Elizabeth (Lily Collins) is as much of a protagonist of this film as Bundy is, as the story is told from her point of view and, therefore, begins with her meeting with “Ted” (Zac Efron) – a Ted who couldn’t be more different from the ruthless, creepy criminal-to-be we were expecting to see. This Bundy is a charismatic, loving, attractive young man who comes up with cute pickup lines, cooks breakfast for her girlfriend in the morning and is exceptionally good at interacting with children. As his charges start to materialise and his courtroom appearences become more and more frequent, Bundy becomes even more eloquent and poised, and we realise just how able a manipulator he can be. As the film starts to look more like a courtroom drama than a biopic, not only do we understand why Kendall has been fixated on his innocence for so long, but we get to see Bundy in action as he expertly and rationally constructs new versions of his story and even manages to gain celebrity status with his many admirers.
At times, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile doesn’t really know what kind of film it wants to be. Part courtroom drama, part biopic, part psychological investigation and part crime drama, its unusual narrative turns a story with an immense deal of potential into a final product that somehow manages to be both intriguing and confusing. Its exploration of Bundy’s relationship with not one, but two women who used to love him (Liz Kendall and Carole Anne Boone, played by Kaya Scodelario) gives us an insightful, thought-provoking psychological analysis of the worst sides of human nature; at the same time, its failure to address Bundy’s darkest actions and motives turns it into a film that, although certainly capable of delivering genuinely engaging moments, sometimes feels redundant and incomplete.
Berlinger’s take on Ted Bundy is not a perfect film, but it does provide us with more than one pleasant surprise, starting with its exceptional quality in terms of acting. Not only is every single cast member able to deliver spot-on performances, but Zac Efron is undoubtedly the movie’s standout, and what makes it worth watching. The High School Musical actor is outside of his comfort zone, and yet he is absolutely flawless as a serial killer who is as magnetic as he is eerie. It’s not easy to portray a character as complex and multilayered as Ted Bundy, and yet Efron fills our screens with such spontaneity and charm that it’s hard to imagine him playing any other role. Just like his admirers in the courtroom, we find ourselves under his spell and could watch him effortlessly mesmerise audiences for hours.
Efron’s impressive performance is not the only surprise of the film. Extremely Wicked delights us with an array of unexpected cameos (including James Hetfield’s believable appearance as the officer who first arrests Bundy) and clever dialogues, starting from the courtroom scenes, where more familiar faces appear. One of them is Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory), who joins the trial as Florida Prosecutor Larry Simpson, and the other is John Malkovich, who is such a natural in the courtroom that he makes us wish for a whole show based on his character, in which Judge Edward D. Cowart would give out sentences The Good Wife-style with snarky remarks and pearls of wisdom.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile doesn’t entirely deliver what its title promises, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. This Ted Bundy drama might not fit into one category and is definitely flawed in terms of narrative, but it is still a good attempt at telling a well-known story in an original way. It is also an incredibly well-acted film, in which Efron gives the best performance of his acting career, and an insightful portrayal of a disturbed man who nearly managed to fool everyone around him with his carefully constructed lies and charming appearance.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile was released in select countries on May 3, 2019, and is now available to watch on Netflix.