Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (try getting that one right the first time without looking it up) comes through on its implicit promise to be provocative (as one imagines any movie about a serial killer like Ted Bundy would be), but not always in the sense that it provokes thought or reflection. More often it simply makes you wonder if its depiction is responsible.
It’s a portrait of a man with a split personality where one personality is almost never seen, a werewolf movie that shows only the briefest glint of the fangs. It focuses almost entirely on how Ted Bundy, presumptive serial killer, was able to appear outwardly charming — certainly a topic worthy of exploration — but it also feels like it never fully reckons with Ted Bundy’s hatred of women. Such a specific portrait is certainly a choice, but the way it’s done makes you wonder if writer Michael Werwie and director Joe Berlinger were exploring Ted Bundy’s outward appearance of normalcy or if they were actually taken in by it.
Zac Efron, an extremely generous casting on the face of it even before the luxurious roasted turkey tan afforded him by cinematographer Brandon Trost, plays Bundy, the original rock star serial killer, as the movie depicts it (Bundy’s fake cast ruse, which he used to kill two coeds in Washington, shows up in the Silence of The Lambs, along with plenty of other Bundy echoes throughout pop culture). Bundy is said to be responsible for the murders of at least 30 women, none of whom we meet in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile. Instead, Bundy’s relationship with women is told mostly through his courtship of Liz, played by Lily Collins (the other British Lily, the one with the fabulous eyebrows whose father is Phil Collins).
Bundy meets Liz, a single mother, at a Seattle bar, and eventually proposes marriage. He’s sweet to her from the start, the eventual rapist and murderer not pushing her for sex even after she invites him in, and instead rises early to heat the formula and serve the baby Cheerios and make the coffee before Liz even wakes up — all while dressed in her floral kitchen apron! (Does Zac Efron have a ladies-clothing clause in his contract?)
Aw, wasn’t Ted sweet? I mean, we get it, it’s entirely possible for a serial killer to seem like a sweet guy, and Extremely Wicked hammers that point until its wrists get sore. And certainly there’s an alternative extreme that would’ve been just as hackneyed or worse — to depict a serial killer as a monster, to portray him as something other than human to assuage our own revulsion that we share the same synapses as someone capable of such things. Or, it could’ve exploited his crimes for schlock and cheap titillation. To explore a killer’s humanity is not without value, and the degree of difficulty is admittedly high here.
While far from the worst possible take, “serial killers are just like us” still seems a bit facile. Serial killers look just like us, sure, and some can fake it especially well, but there really isn’t something more to Ted’s character than a charismatic and manipulative guy who sometimes commits brutal rapes and murders with no connective tissue in between? That seems to be the point they’re trying to make, but you wonder if they just didn’t look hard enough. Extremely Wicked‘s portrayal yawns with a sense of incompleteness.
There’s also something off-putting about the energy Extremely Wicked spends on all the female court observers swooning over Ted Bundy, to the point that they call him “dreamy” and break into applause when he wins an objection. Extremely Wicked is studiously factual (Berlinger also directed the Ted Bundy Tapes documentary series for Netflix) so it’s not as if that stuff didn’t happen, but if you’re going to show that but not any of the rapes and murders, I think you owe it to us to explore what exactly those women saw in him. (I got a queasy feeling thinking about how much fuel this film would give the “why don’t girls like nice guys” quarters of the incelnet.) Liz pushes away her nice guy coworker, played by Haley Joel Osment, while holding a candle for the man she knows deep down is a rapist, murderer, possible necrophiliac pedophile, Ted. It’d be worth exploring why that is, but the film sort of takes it as self-explanatory.
The casting hurts them a bit in this regard too, despite Zac Efron’s solid work in probably his best role. “What did women see in Ted Bundy” is an open question, but it’s one easily answered with “he looks like Zac Efron,” which doesn’t tell us much about the real Bundy. It also makes the women in Ted Bundy’s life seem shallow and foolish in a way that’s maybe not entirely fair.
There’s a crackling final scene between Efron and Collins that goes some way towards justifying what Berlinger and Werwie are trying to do here, but a movie about Ted Bundy really shouldn’t need the very last scene just to confirm that yes, Ted Bundy was guilty of the crimes he was convicted for. There’s stock footage during the credits, proving that some of the more far fetched parts of the movie really did happen as they were depicted. But in watching those, you wonder if Berlinger and Werwie were so caught up in the facts that they missed some of the story.