Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile | Joe Berlinger | Tribeca 2019 & May 3, 2019 (Netflix)
Ted Bundy was a sociopathic serial killer of women. He brutalized and murdered thirty women that we know of; the actual number is believed to be much higher. His youngest victim was twelve years old.
I open with this statement because it’s little more than a footnote in Netflix’s new Ted Bundy biopic, the pretentiously-titled Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. A more fitting title may have been Extremely Arrogant, Shockingly Cutesy and Sexy. The film opens with Bundy’s (Zac Efron) ex-fiance Liz (Lily Collins) visiting him shortly before his execution. We see their early relationship in a rushed flashback, and anyone who wandered into the theater late (or skipped ahead on Netflix) could be forgiven for mistaking the movie for a romantic comedy. He makes breakfast and takes care of her baby! He’s kind and considerate! He’s cuddly! I kept waiting for the movie to start cutting to the murders to show a stark juxtaposition between his self-made dreamboat persona and the horrifying truth, but it never came. Instead, he’s pulled over by the police and arrested for an attempted kidnapping and eventually implicated in several murders. He swears his innocence to Liz, who starts on a downward spiral of alcoholism and depression that gets worse as the interstate trials continue.
The performances are easily the high point of the movie; Zac Efron turns in arguably the best performance of his career. The main cast also includes memorable performances from Jim Parsons as the prosecutor of Bundy’s televised murder trial in Miami-Dade, James Hetfield (yes, THAT James Hetfield) as a semi-dogged homicide investigator, and John Malkovitch as the judge who sentences Bundy and speaks the title phrase. Though the film sports a solid cast, the visuals are sorely lacking. The story takes place over twenty years, and none of the actors are aged a day from beginning to end. The ’70s aesthetic also feels inorganic; the costumes look like they were picked up at Party City by an unlucky intern.
The primary problem with Extremely Wicked is that it doesn’t know whose story it is. We spend half the film following Bundy through his arrests, 2 escapes, re-captures, and trials, and the other half on Liz’s struggle watching the man she loved on trial for his life. There is no balance between these two perspectives, and the film feels unfocused as a result; it’s hard to tell whether Bundy or Liz is the protagonist.
Another major issue with the movie is the tone. The first third of the film shows Bundy as a caring boyfriend and surrogate father, and a viewer who was raised by wolves and has never heard of Ted Bundy may very well believe he is innocent. During his trial, we see his narcissism and arrogance in full force as he manipulates his new girlfriend Carol Anne Boone (The Maze Runner‘s Kaya Scodelario) and thinks himself the smartest man in the courtroom when representing himself during the trial. In the final ten minutes of the movie, the evil is finally revealed, as we are shown one murder in flashback. While I can understand the hesitancy to portray the murders of real-life victims on film for fear of making light of a tragedy, by waiting until the tail end of the movie to show the horrors committed by Bundy, the film comes dangerously close to humanizing him. His victims, whose names are shown onscreen before the end credits, deserve better. Hopefully, going forward, filmmakers will proceed with caution when making a movie about real-life serial killers and remember to portray them as the monsters they are.