Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile movie review: Zac Efron's Ted Bundy biopic is incredibly problematic, shallow
The Zac Effron-led Extremely Wicked humanises, glamourises and adds to the legend of the notorious serial killer, Ted Bundy.
castZac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, Jeffrey Donovan, Angela Sarafyan, Dylan Baker, Brian Geraghty, Jim Parsons, John Malkovich, Haley Joel Osment
You could bring up the names of Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer or Ed Gein in conversation with a group of film lovers or pop-culture fiends from anywhere around the world, and it is likely you'll see delighted faces, all ready to indulge in an intense discussion. This says as much about our fascination with serial killers as it does about how the pervasive American pop culture has become the vernacular of the global populace.
Films (from Pyscho to The Silence of the Lambs to Zodiac) and TV series (from Dexter to True Detective to Mindhunter) have been generously feeding the public's seemingly ravenous appetite for the macabre for decades. Be it the thrill of the chase or the latitude to indulge in our most vengeful fantasies in controlled conditions, the serial killer drama continues to attract large audiences. Like it did at Sundance Film Festival 2019 with the highly anticipated premiere of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.
Joe Berlinger's darkly comic portrait of Ted Bundy begins with the incredibly charismatic serial killer (played by Zac Effron) and single mother Liz Kloepfer's (Lily Collins) meet-cute at a Seattle bar in 1969. They hit it off instantly and though she invites him in to her house, he doesn't push her for sex.
The next morning, Liz wakes up to see him in the kitchen in her apron making coffee and breakfast and holding a large knife in his hand. This draws out more than a few chuckles in the audience, who can see past this gentlemanly persona. Seeing Bundy in an intimate domestic setting when you're perfectly aware of his vile crimes does make for an oddly amusing juxtaposition.
But that's what Berlinger hopes to highlight — serial killers are not necessarily Freddy Krueger-like monstrous-looking boogeymen. They look just like everyone else and Bundy was able to lure his victims because of his disarming charm and good looks.
When Bundy isn't being a good boyfriend, he's out killing women in the most gruesome manner. When law enforcement finally closes in, their domestic fairy-tale life is shattered as Bundy is arrested on a series of rape and murder charges. Bundy maintains his innocence and convinces Liz to stand by him. However, as the evidence and the charges begin to pile up, she is forced to see beneath his handsome, affable facade and consider the possibility that he could be a split personality.
While most films about serial killers explore their motivations and modus operandi with graphic scenes of their sadistic exploits, Berlinger shows the other side — how they can be leading perfectly normal lives. Extremely Wicked does not showcase the misogynistic fury carefully hidden underneath Bundy's suave law student facade. It instead reduces its focus to his life just before his capture, his prison escapes and the highly theatrical murder trials. It also takes a superficial look at how his creepy charm and media sensationalism earned him a throng of female supporters, who were obsessed with him even if they all didn't entirely believe him to be innocent. It is disconcerting to see them all entranced by Bundy, only because he didn't look “like the type to kill somebody,”
Zac Effron is more than convincing as Bundy but the film's limited focus means we don't see Bundy's more chilling, unhinged avatar. As Michael Fassbender showed with Steve Jobs, you don't need to look exactly like the character you're portraying as long as the film has a tightly structured narrative and an engaging script. Extremely Wicked would have been a much more fascinating and insightful film if it had better explored Lily Collins' character arc in the second half, rather than repeatedly showing her smoking and swigging down bottles as she watches Bundy's trials on television.
Berlinger shows Bundy to be a pretty sympathetic and innocent figure right until the final scene where he confesses to Liz that he is in fact a) extremely wicked, b) shockingly evil and c) vile.
While Extremely Wicked doesn't exactly glamourise Bundy, it lets you entertain the thought that he could be innocent of the brutal murders of at least 30 women. This could leave some with an uncomfortable sense of complicity. And we're all guilty for not only binging on serial-killer fiction — in whatever medium available — but also for turning them into celebrities. When films try to understand their motivations and explore their personal histories and/or troubled childhoods, they’re still only adding to their legend.
This review was first published after the screening of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile at Sundance Film Festival, 2019. The film will premiere on Netflix on 3 May.
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