For a story about a grotesque man who committed grotesque acts under the gilded, media-perpetuated sheen of confident innocence, there’s strangely little of explicitly grotesque nature to be found in Joe Berlinger’s “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.”
You certainly wouldn’t use “grotesque” to describe Zac Efron before watching him apply the ostensible charm of one of history’s most notorious serial killers, Ted Bundy, in the new Netflix film. The casting is tongue-in-cheek, as well as an excellent decision on pretext alone; the former preteen heart throb (is he still?) has such an eerie resemblance to Bundy that it’ll make you want to compare family trees.
Berlinger, though, seems a bit too preoccupied with playing up to the sexuality associated with the Efron name. It’s not an unusual choice on its own merit; Bundy was known to use his natural good looks to lure dozens of women before killing them in the ‘70s.
But it went from sensible technique to distraction when I realized how picky “Extremely Wicked” is about what to sanitize. There’s virtually no killing that occurs on-screen, no counterbalance to Efron’s wily smile and swagger that makes you regret for more than a few seconds ever swooning over him in the first place.
Meanwhile, women smile at him in libraries, cheer for him in court and drink up his antics, as if we are to be tricked into sympathizing. The experience is like watching a Watergate movie that, in 2019, is crossing its fingers that we’re oblivious about Nixon’s involvement. The absence of bloodshed feels more like redaction than omission; we know this story is grislier than the one Berlinger presents with “Extremely Wicked.” And the near-total truancy of violence makes the movie murky, its priorities suspect.
There’s an eye for detail that’s deftly and acutely applied here. We should expect as much; Berlinger is a documentarian by nature, having recently been involved with several true crime docuseries projects. But there’s something amiss, some impact clearly lacking when he does so little to subvert Efron’s indestructible attractiveness by being so hesitant to associate the former Disney crooner with unthinkable violence, the darkest tendencies of humanity.
Ted Bundy showed us that heartthrobs – Troy Bolton, even – could harbor evil. The choice of limiting our window into those dark depths to grainy photos of Bundy’s victims presented in the safety of a guarded, nicely lit courtroom blunts the kind of impact “Extremely Wicked” seems to be searching for, especially in a post-“Zodiac” world.
It makes the rare moment when Efron does lean into Bundy’s cruelty particularly grim; brief scenes of him leering at the naked body of Lily Collins and shoving an unconscious victim into his car are arresting in their obvious disturbing nature. But the inherent terror of those moments was offset by my feeling perplex at their supposed use as climaxes of dramatic tension, ones clearly undercut by their awkward timing. In a movie chiefly about a serial killer, the appearance of a killer shouldn’t feel so damn out of place.
The fact there’s yet another new Bundy project directed by Berlinger – “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” – currently streaming on Netflix makes “Extremely Wicked” feel even more like a mere formality of a movie, especially with the minimal creative energy powering it.
Nor does it help that Berlinger’s film suffers from consistent inconsistency, via pacing and choice of music to point of views and the general lack of a coherent structure. I don’t think “Extremely Wicked” ever is in danger of glorifying its subject. But that may be because we’re left spending so much time figuring out whose story this is that we’re left devoid of the energy to render judgement about its potential empathies.
The movie is at its most illuminating and entertaining – though it comes in trickles, not bursts – when it’s a courtroom drama, Efron and Berlinger shedding light on the killer’s antics in playing up the news media and representing himself to the judge, a man disguising how at the end of his rope he is by pretending to have his grip on a lasso. But “Extremely Wicked,” we’re led to believe, isn’t chiefly an ironic legal thriller; sandwiching Bundy’s trial are the chronological bookmarks where we see Efron’s Bundy and Lily Collins’s Liz at the earliest and latest stages of their real-life relationship.
Liz ostensibly plays an important role in the story (is it her story? Berlinger is too non-committal) as well as the audience avatar for wanting to disbelieve the claims Bundy faces. The movie forgets about her for stretches at a time, however—stretches that feel like years in the plot, and only then we assume so because of context clues (date and location cards suspiciously flee faster from the screen than killers from a crime scene).
And we get only a handful of precious moments to see what kind of individual spirit Liz is; once she meets Bundy, the film rushes to sharpen his portrayal like a news camera to the real-life man, leaving her in its wake.
Berlinger can trick himself into thinking he spends equal amounts of time telling Liz’s story than he does Bundy’s, but the former never feels like little more than a table of contents by which we jump to different points in the Bundy story, the meaty chapters. And Collins isn’t allowed room by the script to transcend the limits placed on her. Her occasional returns to the story feel like little more than reminders of her increasingly remote place in it.
“Extremely Wicked” already feels drowsy in trying to tell the story it seemingly wants to tell, and it’s unmistakable what part of the Bundy story it’s most interested in telling, though that feels like addition by cinematic subtraction. Berlinger would like us to believe Liz comes full circle by film’s end, and we can tell ourselves as much.
What ends up transpiring in her supposed moment of emancipation, however, feels more acutely like the cementing of her former partner in American history as…well, it’s right there in the title. “Extremely Wicked” seemingly intends to pay off its historical connecting-of-the-dots by way of a central, little-known relationship in Bundy’s life.
So much of the movie up until this point, though, feels so off-key, its priorities slip-sliding across mopped-up puddles of blood, that Liz’s story becomes another victim to Bundy’s crazed acts, and Berlinger to the killer’s blood-soaked allure. Even when there’s nary a crimson drop in sight.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” is rated R for disturbing/violent content, some sexuality, nudity and langauge
Starring: Lily Collins, Zac Efron, Angela Sarafyan, Sydney Vollmer
Directed by Joe Berlinger