Documentary maker Joe Berlinger (“The Ted Bundy Tapes”) makes his directorial debut in drama in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.” The title is taken from the sentencing judgement passed down by the judge in the case of Ted Bundy, one of America’s most notorious serial killers.
The casting of Zac Efron as Bundy raised a lot of eyebrows and drew accusations of glamorizing a violent killer. Efron is known for his boyish good looks and his wholesome roles in films like “High School Musical” and “Hairspray.” It is true that killers like Bundy and Richard Ramirez (the Night Stalker) have created a perverse base of “fangirls” who, rather macabrely, take an interest in or even admire these violent criminals. You can actually find Ted Bundy merchandise on Etsy and eBay. Bundy’s trial was also the first to be televised to the public, ushering in an age of sensationalism and entertainment that centered on murder and violence, which many people have rightly labelled as problematic.
However, I find these accusations of glorification to be unfair. Berlinger attempts to take a different approach to true crime. Most serial killer dramas focus on the crime scenes, the bodies, and the lives of the investigators and the police. “Extremely Wicked” barely mentions the police, showing bodies only in passing photographs during Bundy’s trial, and it only minimally shows the violence Bundy inflicted on the women. Instead, the story is told primarily from the perspective of Bundy’s longtime girlfriend, Liz Kloepfer, and emphasizes just how normal Bundy was. Domestic photographs of Bundy playing with Liz’s daughter from a previous relationship litter her apartment. Bundy is shown cooking her breakfast, adopting a dog with her, and generally being romantic and considerate. Berlinger attempts to show us that predators don’t always come from the shadows and don’t always appear to be monsters; they are seemingly normal people who walk among us.
The problem with Berlinger’s vision is that he expects us to play dumb - he tries to force us to see things from Liz’s perspective, to see Bundy as a loving partner, and to even doubt his guilt until the final moments of the film. While this is a noble and educational goal, it’s pretty much impossible to achieve because we know who Ted Bundy is, and we know what he did. The chemistry between Efron and Collins can also be flat - Collins isn’t particularly convincing as a weeping or emotional partner (except in the final scene, which is excellent). Having her cry, drink and lie in her apartment doesn’t convey the horror of what she must have been experiencing, and therefore the attempt to tell the story from her perspective doesn’t always work.
Efron, however, gave his best performance to date. He excellently portrays a man who compartmentalized himself, who lived a double life, and who appeared to be perfectly charming but was internally sinister. We see a man who is narcissistic and controlling but manages to bend women to his will using emotional manipulation rather than violence (well, the women he didn’t kill, anyway). Sometimes you can see the sociopath glimmer through his grin, but most of the time, he just seems to be what we expect Zac Efron to be - cute, kind and convincing - and that’s what makes the whole thing so scary. If you saw someone with those traits walking down the street, would you suspect him of being a killer?
I have a few other minor complaints about the film - the first half feels like a TV movie rather than a proper drama, and Jim Parsons (Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory”) as leading prosecutor was a weird choice (he seems incapable of being anything other than Sheldon no matter what role he plays).
However, for the most part, I think the film teaches two valuable lessons; the first, as already mentioned, is that predators walk among us and you have to be careful whom you trust. The second is that privileged men can often get away with a lot. Some say Ted got away with things because of his attractiveness, but really, he wasn’t that attractive (seriously, look at his face). Ted Bundy got away with things because of who he was in society. He was allowed to escape from prison not once, but twice, as he wasn’t assigned particularly restrictive security despite being accused of multiple homicides. He was allowed to use a law library and represent himself in court. The judge even expressed sorrow at sentencing him, called him a nice young man, and even said he wished that Bundy could have practiced in court in front of him as a lawyer! Imagine someone less privileged getting away with that, despite brutally murdering scores of women.
For true crime fanatics or the average citizen, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” is well worth the watch and teaches valuable lessons, despite some flaws in its execution.