Thanks to a glut of true crime shows and podcasts, we’re in the midst of a renewed “aren’t serial killers fun?” phase, a pretty irresponsible national conversation that, it must be said, gets hits. Joe Berlinger‘s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (woof, that title) both cashes in and casts condemnation on that conversation in a film that is entertaining and confused in almost equal measure.
Zac Efron (who also EPs the film) plays Ted Bundy, the serial killer best known for being handsome and charming instead of, you know, butchering dozens of women. And it’s impossible to deny that Efron is handsome and charming here, giving off a sort of sinister ease that reads as hokey at the beginning of the film before he really starts to live in the role. Lily Collins is a high point as Liz Kloepfer, the single mother who fell in love with Bundy long before his crimes came to light. As Bundy’s arrested, escapes, arrested again, escapes again and so on, Liz’s faith in the man who’s been so good to her and her daughter understandably frays.
The film is based on Liz’s book The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, and yet the film is weirdly lacking in her perspective. Here’s this woman who feels culpable in both the crimes and the arrest of a man that she can’t decide if she believes is innocent, and that’s a fascinating dilemma that is never examined with any real intimacy. A large chunk of Extremely Wicked only portrays Liz in something close to montage mode, clips of her languishing on the couch drinking vodka while Ted cuts up across the country. It’s that distance from the woman whose story inspired the film that keeps it from becoming something more substantial.
While Bundy’s an undeniably engaging subject, he’s one that we’ve seen many times before, and yet another glamorous portrait of the brutal murderer feels – here’s that word again – irresponsible, whereas a film that focused a more significant portion of its screentime on the woman left suffering in his wake would both be more enlightening and show a bit more integrity.
Still, once we move past Ted’s seemingly jolly escapades across the United States and land in the Florida trial that ended his death spree and ultimately his life, Extremely Wicked offers a little more substance, thanks in large part to John Malkovich‘s outstanding performance as Judge Edward D. Cowart, a folksy, “bless your heart” sort of Southern gentleman who nevertheless sees right through the Ted Bundy circus. It’s Cowart who gives the final word on how we, as the audience, are supposed to feel about Bundy, in a long closing statement (that includes that mouthful of a title) ending with the summation of Bundy as a “waste of humanity.”
But it might be too late after an hour and a half of Bundy capering about town, flashing those Efron pearly whites and collecting a bevy of pretty groupies. Sure, in the last five minutes Extremely Wicked delivers a condemnation of a man who confessed to killing upwards of thirty women and who’s suspected of killing many, many more, but that’s after a whole film’s worth of Efron’s Bundy playing the charismatic but persecuted hero of the story.
Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile is a pretty good time, but should it be?