I love Serial Killer Films. When I first saw Zodiac, I was up all night on the Wikipedia page for serial killers, poring through every entry. There’s a level of human fascination, the same way we’re fascinated by people climbing mountains. “How could a person do that?” When a new Ted Bundy documentary, film, or show comes out, I’m there.
I was intrigued by Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, directed by true crime aficionado Joe Berlinger. You probably remember the controversy when trailers began to roll out. People were mad. People said it humanized Bundy, and that spreading this dark story could inspire curiosity into the wrong places. Of course, as Sheila O’Malley points on on rogerebert.com, this is the exact line of questioning used at the time of the Ted Bundy trial. “It’s wrong for the media to report these crimes.” Or, “It’s wrong to show these lustful young women.” Kudos to Berlinger for managing to manufacture the same outrage. Directing a film is one thing, but manipulating the public into becoming a part of the experience is a new level.
Now seems like a good time to mention my viewing process. For me, there are two vital components. One: I only trust my own eyes when I observe. I read no reviews prior to watching. When you do this to yourself, you contaminate the viewing process by watching for what the review said and seeing if you agree instead of analyzing the film. Two: no runtime checks. The reason for this is similar: if you know the film is 105 minutes, you end up forcing your mind into that frame the entire time. Instead of narrative time, you’re now blocking it off into the opening 20, halfway through, etc. Don’t check during, either. There’s no reason other than to gain insight on what’s happening in the narrative soon, anyway. You handicap your ability to actively analyze when you do this. So with this all in mind, I dove in.
Lily Collins puts together a masterpiece of a performance. As the character lives through these phases of increasing confusion and alcoholism, Allen maintains the integrity of the character with apparent ease, taking on the challenge of a complex character in an even more complex situation excellently. Her crowning moment is the sincerity, desperation, and fury of Liz exclaiming to the then-imprisoned Ted her frustration at having left him alone with her daughter, and she packs an emotional punch doing it. The late stages of the film feature Collins navigating the guilt and uncertainty of being both entranced by her past with Bundy and certain he’s guilty of his crimes. She then truly dives into the battle with both alcohol and difficulty in returning to normalcy with a better man in Jerry (Haley Joel Osment). You’d be hard pressed to find a viewer not impressed by the performance given.
Far removed from his High School Musical days, Efron rises to the challenge. A guy like Efron, who oozes charisma, is the right move for this presentation of Bundy as a magnetic figure. His ability to enrapture people with charisma and presence can explain why a certified heartthrob like Efron works in the role. He carries a sense of control essential to playing the character. While his frustration bubbles at times, Efron delivers it organically and authentically. Maybe this rendition of Bundy isn’t as challenging as others could be, but you can only beat the team in front of you. Efron does well enough to merit praise. At times, he delivers exact words uttered by the killer, and manages to maintain his essence while still making the words his own. All around well done from him.
Actors in smaller roles perform well. Really, the acting is pretty solid head-to-toe in this film. Kaya Scodelario portrays a woman enraptured by Efron/Bundy’s charm who follows him across the world. Jim Parsons (of Big Bang Theory fame) brings the cold demeanor of prosecutor Larry Simpson. John Malkovich reprises his lifelong role of Grumpy Old Guy, this time named Judge Edward Cowart, with his classic power, delivering the titular line with signature gravitas. Even Metallica guitarist James Hetfield does a solid job as a cop who pulls over the escaped Bundy. Nobody really falls short of any benchmarks, and some do well enough to carry the film. Great work all around from the talent.
Berlinger is a documentarian, most recently making the four-part Bundy docuseries on Netflix, and played to his strength by using real moments and showing the originals at the end of the film. The best of these has John Malkovich as the judge in conflict with Efron, and both recreate the moment with precision. It fits the vision: show Bundy as Liz saw him, in real life, as close to reality as possible. These moments pepper the film: the press interactions, Bundy’s mid-trial proposal, his mother’s plea. It’s neat, but it detracts a little from the film as a whole beyond that.
It ends without much conclusion. We do finally see Bundy committing the crimes, but we already knew he was guilty. We have Collins’ closing scene, which is powerful, but doesn’t provide new information. Maybe that’s unavoidable with this kind of content, but it still feels like it lacks something. It may have been better to end the film in the courtroom. As it is, the final 8-10 minutes sort of feel like the director squeezed it in between his two favorite moments – the word-for-word sentencing and the epilogue showing how he recreated the real-life events.
In short, the film is worth watching. It’s not terribly long, and if you don’t have a Netflix subscription, you have bigger problems. The actors all deserve a lot of credit. The director deserves praise for his recreations, both on screen and in the press, but as far as the film itself goes, it is a bit lacking in insightful direction at times. The concept is good, but the execution is a bit hands-off, and an extra few months of time to fashion new ideas between his docuseries and the film would have likely paid off. Overall, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is a good watch, but lacks depth and relies heavily on its actors to make up for gaps left by the director. I recommend it, and give it 3 out of 4 stars.
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