The Zac Efron Ted Bundy movie is here, folks. I’ve sat with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile for a few hours since watching, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.
To start with, I don’t agree with those who have accused it of glamourizing Bundy and his crimes. That’s not to say that it handled some of those trickier aspects perfectly. (And a convincing argument could probably be made that this film never needed to be made in the first place.) But I never felt that it was pushing us to sympathize with his character or make him seem “cool”. There is a clear divide in the film between the persona that Bundy projected and the horrible atrocities he committed. Other characters may be sympathetic to him, but it’s not the film’s agenda at all to make us agree with them.
In fact, that matter of perspective is probably the most interesting aspect of Extremely Wicked. The film is told partially through the perspective of Bundy’s long-time girlfriend, Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), who believed in Bundy’s innocence for many years and, as the film depicts, stood by his side to the detriment of her own well-being. The film shows their meeting and the beginning of the relationship briefly before jumping forward to Bundy’s initial arrest, his eventual trial for the murder of two young women, and his time spent on death row. Liz’s confidence in him fluctuates throughout the years, and the film is as much about her struggle to process the decimation of her “happily ever after” as it is about Bundy himself.
By looking at it from Liz’s point of view, it makes sense that the film presents Bundy in a slightly intangible way. We don’t see him commit any violence for the vast majority of the runtime, and the film seems largely uninterested in trying to dive into his psychology. By looking at him the way Liz (and the media and his adoring female fanbase) saw him, it sort of makes him a passive character whose story is told via the impact he had on others.
And to put a matinee idol type like Efron in the role (given that he’s certainly more objectively handsome than Bundy was) is also clever, since it again underlines the large gulf between how Bundy was perceived by those who saw what they wanted to see (someone who, through manipulation, could make himself seem great and you feel great), and who he actually was. And how, if you’re too close to the situation, the reality is sometimes only possible to see in hindsight. (And Efron, for his part, is excellent. He oozes a perfect mix of steeliness and subtle desperation.)
Granted, that reading of the film starts to cracks when you look at the scenes that aren’t seen through someone else’s eyes, and where Bundy is the only character on screen. And I think that’s where this film runs into trouble tonally. Take, for example, the instances where Bundy is trying to MacGyver his way out of a jail cell. The film starts to take on almost a weird caper tone. And while those scenes didn’t feel as though they were trying to make me like Ted Bundy, I’m also not really sure what they were trying to say. (Maybe you could argue that those scenes are still from Liz’s perspective as though she was daydreaming about his escape, but I’m not sure that theory holds water.) And as the film goes through some of the antics of the Bundy trial itself, it feels like it’s being included more for the sake of telling a good yarn than it is getting at anything very insightful.
Director Joe Berlinger has created an intriguing film, but I don’t think he followed some of these threads through to their full potential. For example, I think there’s more to be mined in terms of a meta-commentary of the media and public glamorization of shocking stories like Ted Bundy, which is just barely touched on. (Can you imagine Michael Haneke doing a Funny Games-esque deconstruction of the subject? Preferably still starring Zac Efron?) The more conventional scenes here are the least interesting, and it’s a shame to see Collins (and her character’s interesting questions around denial, complicity, and self-worth) get somewhat sidelined for much of the draggy middle portion of the film. Because even though you may not think this film needs to exist, with a bit more focus it could have been something pretty interesting.