From exhaustive investigative documentaries to slick, disturbing thrillers to even meta tales of destruction courtesy of Lars von Trier, it seems like the serial killer movie has been covered from every possible angle. Enter the Ted Bundy drama Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which begins as a sympathetic perspective of an insider’s look at living with a killer before being taken over by a disarmingly charismatic Zac Efron in a scenery-chewing spectacle. While there are compelling aspects to both sides, the result is a film that wants to have it both ways, ultimately coming up short.
With the disturbing crimes of Ted Bundy already well-publicized, we (almost) never see any of his gruesome exploits on screen. Instead, director Joe Berlinger plants us in his domestic life, tracking the relationship with his girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lilly Collins) and her child. As 16mm-styled home footage of their family life plays, so does the audio of news reports of murdered women in the area, creating the unsettling dissociation of the terrifying secrets he hides from his new family. Berlinger, who is deeply knowledgeable of Bundy’s story with his counterpart Netflix documentary, then jumps through the timeline of main events while keeping the focus on the killer’s life outside his crimes and inside his home–well, at least before thoroughly abandoning that idea.
Already stirring up controversy with sight-unseen claims of romanticizing a serial killer, Berlinger has no qualms in giving credence to this idea, even toying with an audience who might find it insulting as he cuts rapidly from their passionate love-making to Bundy’s first court appearance. If the script by Michael Werwie had more restraint to focus solely on Kloepfer’s perspective, then his romanticization might have been more warranted, having been borne from how she viewed a rather attractive, charming person that came into her life. After all, even though she has suspicions, she never saw any of his crimes being committed. Rather, she was the product of pure manipulation as the fast-talking Bundy always had an excuse for any predicament he found himself in. When the law gets more involved and he finds himself in jail, he attempts to charm Liz by never losing hope that their life may soon continue, the message of his favorite book from jail, Papillon.
With his ripped physique, Efron may not resemble Bundy and it takes about half the film for him to convincingly fall into place, but it ultimately makes for slyly smart headline-making casting. In a career built off his winning magnetism, we’re as engaged as we are repulsed at his exploits of manipulation, involving Liz, the court, the media, and his admirer from jail, Carole Anne Boone (Kaya Scodelario). John Malkovich also shows up in exaggerated form as the presiding judge, sparring with Bundy as the cameras are turned on both of them in the televised court spectacle. It’s as if Berlinger himself, like the media, got so caught up in the charm of Efron as Bundy that he loses the foundation of Liz’s point of view and fully invests in the spectacle. While that makes for some intriguing meta-commentary, it doesn’t make for a strong film.
As an oddity of the serial killer genre, some of Berlinger’s choices ring more as engagingly strange than unsuccessful, such as a number of 1970s music cues cut with Bundy’s antics. One baffling sequence finds him plotting his escape, crosscut as Haley Joel Osment’s nice-guy character aims to befriend his co-worker Liz, and an even more bizarrely-crafted scene sees Bundy in his media glory during an indictment. (Which we see the less-flashy real version of, among many other things, in the end credits.) One imagines the director also intended for some knowing dark laughs when, after their first encounter, Bundy cooks breakfast with a large steak knife in his hand, moving it closer to Liz’s child. It’s these peculiar touches throughout that make Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile a curiosity even if it falters in what it initially sets out to accomplish.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and opens on May 3.
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