The idea of going to sleep next to Ted Bundy is a chilling thought. But despite being infamous now for the brutal murder of at least 30 women in the 1970s, there was a time—including during much of his trial—where many folks mistook him for a smiling, handsome law student. Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) is one such person in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile. At the beginning of Joe Berlinger’s new movie, Bundy, played ever so disarmingly by Zac Efron, seduces Liz to take him home to her infant daughter in a crib, and then watches over both as she closes her eyes for a late night cuddle. But what might be more disturbing to the audience than this sensitive serial killer is that when Liz wakes up her child is gone:
… Ted Bundy had taken the girl to her high-chair in the kitchen so he could make breakfast for mother and daughter, complete with apron around the waste and a pot of coffee in hand. It is in the radical cognitive dissonance between perception and reality, and the perception of the audience versus the perception of the people in Ted’s life, where Berlinger has made an entire movie. For never has there been a serial killer film like Extremely Wicked, which pivots around the eerie lack of an eeriness in Bundy’s disposition for almost its whole running time.
Set mostly over the decade between Bundy meeting Liz and the sentencing phase of his trial, Extremely Wicked makes the challenging decision of not only depicting Ted Bundy as the protagonist, but in a way that denies audiences the sights of his extremely wicked deeds until near the very end. Instead the film often paints its narrative as how Liz wants to see the man she agreed to marry: the charismatic guy with shaggy hair and a nice smile who goes through incredible lengths to prove his innocence as the allegations pile up… and then escape the long reach of the law the more unlikely those protestations become.
There are genuinely heartfelt moments between Liz and Ted that give the movie an almost queasy pleasantness, just as the sheer brazenness of Ted’s escape from a Colorado courthouse cannot be depicted as anything less than comically ingenious. But then that is the real heart of the matter: there is something dangerously ingratiating about clever Ted, be it the romantic, the cunning fugitive, or the self-styled lawyer who winds up running most of his defense during the film’s third act legal drama climax. And yet, it is all of those things that made it easy for him to operate as a prolific murderer in so many states for years, and to offer more than coffee to the dozens of women he slaughtered, tortured, and worse.
Berlinger is a filmmaker best known for his groundbreaking documentaries about crime, injustice, and the systemic way the two are blurred in projects like Paradise Lost and Intent to Destroy. So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that for his first leap back into narrative fiction in nearly 20 years, he prefers to focus on the incredulity of living with a monster as opposed to the gory details dripping from his claws. Coupled with his upcoming Bundy documentary series, Conversations with a Killer, Extremely Wicked attempts to study how people around Ted were so easily fooled all while trying to almost induce a kind of Stockholm Syndrome on the audience, forcing us to root for the killer.
This approach is aided greatly by Efron who gives a career best performance as the charismatic sociopath. Naturally affable and winsome, the former teen idol has never given dimension to a creature like Ted, who is himself trying to play a larger-than-life celebrity smiling from his wanted posters. For fans, it’s almost like a concert unto itself when he shows up in courtrooms with sharp bowties and a devil-may-care grin. There is undoubtedly a darkness there that the movie rarely hints at, but Efron’s natural persuasiveness goes a long way in building a character who is all easygoing charm even when he should be absolutely terrified that the death penalty is inching closer.
Of course this is designed to be mostly how others view his charms, especially Liz. As the woman who was tricked for years to love a monster and believe his puppy dog eyes, Collins is given the more heavylifting work to do, including by overcoming how the screenplay often relies on stereotypical broad strokes to overemphasize her depression, drinking, or inability to let Ted go. She succeeds despite the film often putting her character in a rather constraining box.
In fact, for all of the movie’s own ingenuity, its approach does hit an inevitable ceiling due to the problematic concept of telling a serial killer’s escapades as a kind of wrongfully accused adventure for most of its running time. By the very title, every audience member knows that Ted is a demon in a shiny package, and while the film doesn’t deny this, its whole approach only warks if it soft-pedals Ted’s heinousness in order for viewers to be at least partially intrigued. Ted’s crimes, among other things, show a sickening level of misogyny and hatred of women that is barely ever glimpsed in Efron’s feel-good performance. Nor can it be denied that the movie glorifies the intellect and thrall of the killer at the disservice of his many victims who are literally a foot note by movie’s end.
As a consequence, the pacing of the third act, where the film chronicles Ted’s legal misfortunes, plays a bit muddled in its emotions as we’re asked again to empathize with an obviously guilty cretin. The only character who seems as in on the charade as the audience is a friendly but unflappable Florida judge played with wry detachment by John Malkovich. As Malkovich’s adjudicator surmises, Ted is a bright young man who would’ve made an entertaining lawyer before that court, which makes the shock of his evil ever more insidious.
Nonetheless, for whatever limitations Berlinger’s and screenwriter Michael Werwie’s approach placed on themselves, their goal of creating a movie that showcases the malleability of monsters to thrive in our midst is a success. Others who viewed the film out of Sundance this year have claimed the movie glorifies the killer, but this is an oversimplification. It asks you to experience the warmth of his gaslight, which in itself is its own shocking evil because it really is appealing. Unlike a hundred grisly serial killer movies inspired by Bundy in the ‘90s (including Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs), Extremely Wicked focuses on why so many young women flocked to the courtrooms to cheer on Ted, as well as how one can sleep for years with some Devil to watch over you. To bear witness to that makes Extremely Wicked also remarkably unique.
This review was first published on Feb. 3, 2019.