**_An interesting approach to the story, but the tone is poorly managed. Worth seeing for Efron's performance, though_**
>_I get very, very angry and indignant. I don't like being locked up for something I didn't do, and I don't like my liberty taken away, and I don't like being treated like an animal, and I don't like people walking around and ogling me like I'm some sort of weirdo, because I'm not._
- Ted Bundy; Interview in Garfield County Jail, Colorado (May 15, 1977)
> _Those of us who are, who have been so much influenced by violence in the media, in particular pornographic viol__ence, are not some kinds of inherent monsters. We are your sons and we are your husbands. And we grew up in regular families._
- Ted Bundy; Interview with James Dobson in Florida State Prison (January 23, 1989; the day before his execution)
> _He would walk me out to my car at two in the morning when my shift was over, and he'd say "Ann please lock your doors, I don't want anything bad to happen to you on the way home"._
- Ann Rule; "Ted Bundy" episode of _Born To Kill?_ (2012)
> _He ruined our lives and he's still part of our lives._
- Belva Kent, mother of victim Debra Jean Kent (February 16, 2005)
>_The reason I wanted to do this film is precisely because it avoided showing the violence. I'm much more interested in making a film about how a serial killer is living his life when he's not killing. To me, that deception and betrayal and manipulation is far scarier. Doing a movie about the fact that people can be in your midst and be killers is more interesting than just doing a movie about the catalogue of violence. Some people have criticised the lack of violence in the film as being disrespectful to the victims, saying we're glorifying a killer. I actually think the opposite, and I'm confused and surprised at the idea that someone showing the worst moment in somebody's existence - the moment where they're being tortured and killed – how showing that means you're not glorifying the killer. I think that's much more disrespectful to the victims of the violent crime. To me, you're glorifying the killer by showing the worst moment._
- Joe Berlinger; "Q&A: _Extremely Wicked_ Director Joe Berlinger Loves Zac Efron, Not Ted Bundy" (Brandon Katz); _Observer_ (May 3, 2019)
Directed by Joe Berlinger immediately after he completed work on _Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes_, _Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile_ is a strange beast. A serial killer film which doesn't show any serial killing, it has been advertised as told from the perspective of a single character, but that character is one who's barely in the second half of the movie. Tonally, it's also unusual insofar as it seems for about 90% of its runtime to genuinely flirt with the notion that Bundy may have been the victim of a vast conspiracy. In reality, of course, given leeway by a judge out of his depth, granted privileges by a prison system unaware of how dangerous he really was, turned into an ironic folk hero by a media unused to such a charming and humorous breed of criminal, and supported by a cadre of women who judged him too good-looking to be a killer, Bundy was the first celebrity serial killer, and remains the best-known example of such (Charles Manson doesn't count as he wasn't a serial killer). And whilst the film is worth seeing for Zac Efron's performance if nothing else, it's a strangely muted affair, neither ghoulish warts-and-all carnage nor restrained psychological treatise. Telling the story of Bundy from the perspective of a woman who was oblivious to his true nature is an undeniably interesting narrative choice, and had Berlinger stuck to this format, it could have made for a fascinating film. However, the longer it goes on, the more it seems to revel in Bundy's flamboyance, and what begins as an intriguing insider's look at living with a killer soon shifts into an underwhelming courtroom drama, only returning to its original tone in the final (entirely fictional) scene.
The film begins in 1989, with Ted Bundy (Efron) on death row in Florida, still maintaining his innocence, although his execution is imminent. Visited by his former girlfriend, Liz Kendall (Lilly Collins), aka Liz Kloepfer, she demands he confess to his crimes so she can move on with her life. The film then returns to 1969, the night Bundy and Liz first met in a Seattle bar. As a single mother with a low-paying job, Liz is surprised to find this charismatic, handsome, and intelligent law student so interested in her, but interested he is, with the duo quickly falling in love, and Bundy treating both Liz and her daughter Molly extremely well. The film then jumps forward to July 1974. When two women are abducted in broad daylight from a packed Lake Sammamish State Park in Washington, the police issue a sketch of a man who resembles Bundy, saying the suspect may drive a yellow Volkswagen Beetle (which he does). The following year, when he is stopped in Utah for a minor traffic violation, the police find a "kidnap kit" in his car (ropes, handcuffs, ski mask, leather gloves, crowbar etc), and take him into custody, where he is positively identified by Carol DaRonch (Grace Victoria Cox), who had narrowly avoiding being kidnapped in November 1974. Bundy vehemently protests his innocence to Liz, claiming that DaRonch was shown his picture prior to the line-up, and although concerned, she accepts his explanations. After a bench trial, Bundy is found guilty of attempted kidnapping, and sentenced to one to 15 years. When he is subsequently charged with murder in Colorado, although she still believes him to be innocent, Liz starts to drink heavily to help her deal with the stress. However, as police departments across California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, and Florida start to connect Bundy to a string of recent murders, it becomes harder and harder for Liz to shake the feeling that there's more to her boyfriend than she could ever have imagined.
Very loosely based on Liz Kloepfer's memoir, _The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy_ (1981), _Extremely Wicked_ is written by Michael Werwie, and had been on The Black List for several years before it came to the attention of Berlinger. The hook for the original script was that the audience is unaware the character they're watching is in fact Ted Bundy; the film was written as a supposedly fictional story of a young couple whose life is shattered when he is accused of multiple murders, with his real identity only coming as a final act twist. As Berlinger was completing _The Ted Bundy Tapes_, the script was offered to him, and although he found the twist distasteful, he loved the idea of looking at the Bundy story through the eyes of someone who thought him to be innocent. Known as a documentarian for films such as _Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills_ (1996), _Metallica: Some Kind of Monster_ (2004), and _Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger_ (2014), _Extremely Wicked_ is only Berlinger's second scripted film, after the fascinating misfire that was _Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2_ (2000).
One of the biggest appeals of the movie, of course, is the unexpected casting of Zac Efron as Bundy (Efron also serves as executive producer). Known for his early roles in Disney films such as Kenny Ortega's original _High School Musical_ trilogy, and later comedies such as Nicholas Stoller's _Neighbors_ (2014), Dan Mazer's _Dirty Grandpa_ (2016), and Seth Gordon's _Baywatch_ (2017), aside from Lee Daniels's batshit insane _The Paperboy_ (2012) and Peter Landesman's ensemble piece _Parkland_ (2013), Efron has never really had a chance to show any dramatic chaps. And it has to be said, he's excellent here. Although he doesn't look like Bundy _per se_ (Bundy was good looking, he wasn't _that_ good looking), Efron has the mannerisms down to an absolute tee. If you watch the film after the docu-series, you'll really pick up on the depth of the performance, especially in the scene where the gloating Sheriff of Leon County, Ken Katsaris (Kevin McClatchy), indicts Bundy in front of the assembled media - Efron's every movement and gesture, every glance at the camera, the way he smiles, the way he stands, the tone of his voice, everything is perfect. Of course, Bundy's good looks and charisma were his most formidable weapons, and as a very attractive, very clean-cut, and very charming white man, Efron is able to tap into the fact that one of the most important aspects of the Bundy case was his white privilege (something which has been discussed by everyone from Robert D. Keppel to Ann Rule to Stephen G. Michaud). Bundy proved that evil could fester under an extremely attractive façade, and this gives Efron room to manoeuvre, playing every scene in such a way that the subtext is always apparent even though he never ostensibly lets Bundy's mask slip. Indeed, it's the absence of any obvious monstrousness in the performance which is so unnerving. As Liz, Lily Collins makes less of an impact, but that's because she has less to work with (more on this in a moment). Having said that, however, where Collins is especially good is in conveying how the seemingly never-ending series of accusations are having a cumulative effect; every time we see her, she looks wearier than before.
The film also features a fine supporting cast, all delivering strong, if restrained, performances; Kaya Scodelario as Carole Ann Boone (an old friend of Bundy's who ultimately became his wife and mother to his child), Angela Sarafyan as Joanna (Liz's (fictional) best friend), Haley Joel Osment as Jerry Thompson (Liz's (fictional) co-worker), James Hetfield as Officer Bob Hayward (who arrested Bundy in Utah in 1975), Jeffrey Donovan as John O'Connell (Bundy's attorney in the DaRonch kidnapping case in Utah), Dylan Baker as David Yocom (prosecutor in the DaRonch kidnapping case), Terry Kinney as Det. Mike Fisher (one of the lead investigators working the Colorado murders), and Jim Parsons as Larry Simpson (prosecutor in the Florida double murder trial). The only false note from an acting perspective is John Malkovich, who's spectacularly miscast as Edward Cowart, the presiding judge at Bundy's double-murder trial. Apart from the fact that Malkovich looks nothing like Cowart, he chews every bit of scenery anywhere near him, overacting to a painful degree. He's not quite as bad as he is in _Billions_, where he has the worst Russian accent I've ever heard from an actor not named Gary Oldman, but he's not far off (and I say that as a Malkovich fan).
One of the film's most notable components is that, apart from one brief scene near the end, there is no depiction of violence. Ostensibly this is Liz's story, and although Berlinger loses sense of that in the second half, he does adhere to the principle of not just keeping the violence off-screen, but of never showing us anything leading up to any of the murders, or any of the immediate aftermath. The idea, obviously enough, is to present Bundy not with the 20-20 hindsight of history, but with the same degree of ambiguity with which Liz would have viewed him. Indeed, if by some miracle someone stumbled on the film who knew nothing about Bundy, I'd imagine they would view it as a mystery thriller about a woman whose boyfriend may or may not be a killer. It's an interesting way into the story and seems a genuine attempt to do something more than simply reproduce the salacious details of the crimes, dwelling not on Bundy's sadism and savagery, but on his manipulations of the people in his life. In this sense, I'm sure it will disappoint those hoping for gory excess, scenes of decapitation, and copious necrophilia. Prior to the end, the closest the film really gets to the details of the crimes is a sequence of Bundy and Liz in relationship bliss, with 16mm home movie-style footage playing on-screen, over which we hear news reports about the murders.
Of course, if you're making a film about a serial killer which doesn't feature much in the way of serial killing, you're going to need to fill it with something, and in this sense, Berlinger focuses, at least in the first half, on how a killer can lie and manipulate, coming across as completely normal to all who know him (it's not mentioned in the film, but it is covered in the docu-series that The Church of the Latter-day Saints of Jesus Christ, which Bundy had joined shortly before his 1975 arrest, were so convinced of his innocence, they sent representatives to support him in court and publicly defended his character). With this in mind, the first half isn't really a true crime story so much as it is an examination of the lies a person capable of evil must tell to hide that capability. Berlinger himself has said that the film is about the mechanics of how a person can be "_seduced by someone capable of evil_", and it was his intention that the audience actually like Bundy, as he wanted them to feel disgust with themselves – just like Liz, Berlinger wanted them to be seduced by evil, and feel very uncomfortable with themselves for allowing it to happen.
However, as admirable as this approach is, the film has a lot of problems, some of which arise directly because of the unique entry point into the story. For one thing, because the film depicts Bundy not as we now know him but as his contemporaries saw him, it means we only see the performative side, never the monstrous underbelly. Sure, this means that the film avoids exploitation, but in doing so, it could be accused of sanitisation (to be fair, this is something of a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario - show the murders and you're exploiting real-life suffering, don't show them and you're hiding the true nature of his crimes). And granted, portraying him as a possibly innocent man is part of the attempt to explain how Liz and the myriad of other women who supported him were essentially partaking in a form of mass self-delusion. However, all the good intentions in the world don't change the fact that the film's Bundy is a lovable rogue who bites his thumb at the system, not a murderer, a man who raped and butchered a 12-year-old child, and who decapitated multiple women and had sex with their corpses.
I understand that Berlinger wants to dramatise the reason that Liz and others were duped, depicting how she could have been blinded by devotion to a man that she thought (correctly, as it turned out) was too good to be true. But the problem is that she herself is never characterised enough for this to work. Indeed, one gets the impression that Berlinger doesn't find her especially interesting on her own – everything we learn about her is predicated on her relationship with Bundy; there's nothing about her life prior to meeting him, and what we learn about her life after he was convicted is primarily fictional. This is true to an even greater degree for Carole Ann Boone, who is introduced out of nowhere as an "old friend" of Bundy's, soon becoming his lover and supporter, and conceiving a child whilst he was on death row. Again, we learn nothing beyond her relevance to his story. Additionally, the focus shift halfway through as the film transitions from Liz as subjective focaliser to a more objectively focalised courtroom drama makes very little tonal sense. It's almost as if Berlinger loses interest in Liz when the sensationalist trial begins and Bundy really comes into his own. This transition reduces Liz to a cycle of watching the trial, crying, doubting his guilt, drinking, watching the trial, crying etc, as she's effectively stripped of what little agency she had in the first half.
Another problem created by telling the story from Liz's perspective is that we learn nothing new about Bundy himself; there's nothing about his childhood, for example, or how he got away with the murders for so long, whether he really loved Liz, or if he genuinely lacked the ability to feel empathy, as Dorothy Otnow Lewis, Professor of Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, would claim in 1988 (something not covered in the film). Along the same lines, we learn nothing whatsoever about any of the victims. This was also a problem in the docu-series, but it's far more pronounced here, and because of this, the decision to put the names of Bundy's known victims on screen at the end of film is unearned, crass, and meaningless, coming as it does at the end of a film in which an A-list movie star has just portrayed their killer, whilst most of them are never even mentioned.
The film also makes some strange changes to documented fact, many of which seem designed to make Bundy more sympathetic. For example, there's no mention of the fact that he tried multiple times to pressure Liz into rough sex, particularly choking. The film also has Liz state that Bundy never raised his voice to her or laid a hand on her, ignoring an incident when he pushed her into a lake during an argument. Another scene sees Bundy forcibly restrained in his cell whilst a dentist takes impressions of his teeth. In reality, the impressions were taken in a dentist chair, and Bundy quite happily allowed the dentist to work, sitting down in the chair without any complaint. The film also shows him continuing to try to contact Liz throughout his incarceration, long after his marriage to Boone. In reality, however, he lost contact with Liz entirely in the early 80s, and there's no evidence he tried to find her, nor did she need to hear him confess in order to "move on". Ironically enough, if the film had stayed focused on Liz, these changes would have made more sense, as the entire film could be argued to be subjective. But because of the focal shift, one cannot make this argument, and such changes become more troubling.
_Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile_ is by no means a bad film. But it could have been so much better. The shift from subjective focalisation to court-room drama makes very little sense, and fundamentally undermines what Berlinger seems to have been trying to do. Much like the media which he is so keen to criticise (both here and in _The Ted Bundy Tapes_), and despite numerous statements to the contrary, he seems as enamoured of Bundy the showman as everyone else was and so many still are. Adopting a fascinating approach, the film initially looks at how evil can hide in plain view, creeping into our lives under the guise of normalcy, hiding monstrousness behind affection. Unfortunately, Berlinger allows this theme to recede into the background as he gives the narrative over to Bundy. And yet, he never manages to say anything new, raising the question of why anything needed to be said at all. If this was supposed to be Liz's story, Berlinger takes his eye off the ball badly, allowing the grandstanding, manipulative Bundy to hog the spotlight. And although the film doesn't sympathise with him, and although the decision not to show any of the murders is commendable, the fact is that like he was with the media of the time, like he has been with so many writers and in so many documentaries and scripted films over the last few decades, once again, Ted Bundy is very much the star of his own show.