Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile Review
The decision to release Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile in cinemas and on TV at the same time is a smart decision. (Sky Cinema in the UK and Netflix in the US). Despite premièring at Sundance earlier this year, Joe Berlinger’s film never feels comfortable on the big screen, its broad strokes, by-the-numbers approach and obvious style more suited to a scaled down TV drama. Although, anyone hoping to learn more about Ted Bundy and his psychosis will probably be better served looking elsewhere.
Berlinger also directed Conversations With Ted Bundy which arrived on Netflix only a day before this played at the Utah festival. With access to so much detailed insight it’s a wonder how he managed to avoid including most of it in his dramatisation of events. Zac Efron’s role as Bundy stole the headlines but he’s just one of the many problems with a film that promises a fresh perspective on a well-trodden story but fails to deliver.
If you don’t already know, Ted Bundy was convicted for killing two women and the attempted murder of three more in 1979. Before his execution ten years later, he confessed to murdering 30 more (experts believe the real figure to be much higher). His attacks were gruesome, some of the details of which are highlighted in the latter half of the film (although none of the murders are shown). He was known as something of a handsome charmer who would woo his way into the affections of young women before brutality kidnapping, raping and murdering them.
Berlinger starts at the end where Efron’s Bundy is awaiting his execution, before pivoting back to 1969 and the moment he met his long-term girlfriend and single mother, Liz Kloepfer (Lilly Collins). The film’s synopsis suggests the story is to be told from her point of view. The reality is, with Efron in the lead role, she is largely reduced to crying, chain smoking, drinking, crying some more and watching Bundy’s trial on TV. While it’s pitched as a survivors story, the cult and charisma of Bundy seems of more interest to Berlinger than giving any real credence to Liz’s narrative.
In the blink of an eye Bundy is seen playing the perfect partner and father, winning the affections of Liz and her young daughter. Berlinger draws our attention to real news footage of the time reporting ongoing assaults and murders of young women before Bundy himself is arrested. He steadfastly refuses to admit he has anything to do with the crimes even as the evidence continues to pile up. At first Liz is behind her man, but the less time Bundy has to influence her and the stronger the case against him becomes, the more she is torn apart by anguish.
The second half of the film is largely concerned with Bundy’s trial (where John Malkovich appears as a sardonic judge), and we only occasionally return back to Liz’s life with new boyfriend Jerry (Haley Joel Osment). This is Efron’s first big attempt to cast himself as a ‘serious’ actor and it has mixed results. As the headline act he has Berlinger’s full focus but his lack of range limits him from showing the evil that lies behind the handsome features. This time Efron doesn’t have to show off his buff bod in a daft comedy or belt out a musical number, and while he deserves some praise for coming out of his comfort zone, it’s difficult to see beyond Efron Into Bundy, which remains a distraction.
Even though Bundy was convicted and confessed to dozens of murders before his death, Berlinger tosses in the suggestion that perhaps he was innocent after all. He never has the nerve to pursue it with any conviction and perhaps it’s only used to create some tension in a film that has none, but it’s a strange addition nonetheless. Especially given how much attention is paid towards giving us the cut and dried facts of Bundy’s case (Berlinger highlights this further during the credits when scenes from the film are matched up against real-life events) which probably explains why so much of Extremely Wicked feels flat.
Is Berlinger’s film a reductive take on a notorious killer whose actions have been scrutinised from almost every possible angle over the last four decades? Probably not. That said, it isn’t able to add anything new to the countless films, documentaries, TV shows and books that have already covered much of the same ground, with many doing so far more successfully. The end result is a film that isn’t able to tell us anything new about its subject, or the actor that portrays him.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile opens in UK cinemas and on Sky Movies May 3.