Directed by Joe Berlinger
Alright so Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile claims to present a new angle on the Ted Bundy story, a perspective through the eyes of his girlfriend, Liz (Lily Collins)… and yet she’s hardly a character in the movie. It is instead focused on Bundy (Zac Efron) himself, specifically his charged charisma. The movie, it seems, never wants to indict Bundy so that it can preserve the dramatic question of ‘what if he’s innocent?’ because that’s the question Liz faces, and yet Liz is almost secondary to the story as a whole. So the movie just feels stripped apart, or like a speed boat that forgot to lift its anchor.
The movie opens in 1969 with Liz and a friend, headed out to a bar. There she meets Bundy and falls pretty quickly for him, partially because he looks like Zac Efron and partially because, you see, he doesn’t mind that she is a single mother. It’s one of those story beats that feels painfully simplistic and even condescending. We learn nothing about them as people, just enough to get the story started.
Before we know it, then, Bundy is arrested for one crime or another. He’s told that his name has been brought up in connection to a murder or two, and suddenly he’s well on his way to the nation’s first televised trial. In terms of plot this starts to accelerate pretty quickly which makes it understandable why we leave Liz behind. She disappears for what feels like much of the movie, with only the shoehorned in relationship between her and a coworker (played by Haley Joel Osment) whose defining characteristic is that’s he’s not Ted Bundy.
What it seems like the movie wants to do is show us Bundy through her eyes, meaning his incarceration should feel as sudden to us as it was to Liz. After all he maintains his innocence, and she believes him. When he asks if she still loves him she confirms that yes she does, even though that’s the problem.
But there are two problems with this framing, as I see it. The first is that we later learn that Liz was the one who gave the police Bundy’s name when he resembled a sketch of a murder suspect in the newspaper, meaning that though she’s conflicted about her role in getting what may possibly be an innocent man arrested, that arrest isn’t a complete surprise. And second, this is Ted Bundy, his guilt is no longer a question, if it ever really was. He is perhaps the most famous serial killer of all time. So the degree to which the movie draws out the question of his guilt doesn’t build up suspense, it just kills time.
As Bundy’s trial takes up more of the movie’s runtime I found the most interesting idea to be about the media, as well as another character, Carol (Grace Victoria Cox), who becomes Bundy’s hype woman. She is head over heels in love with him, which even he can’t quite believe (and seems in his own way disturbed by it), and he begins feeding her lines to parrot back verbatim to the media. There is another scene earlier on in which a defense attorney up for re-election uses Bundy as camera bait, and Bundy calls him out for it.
In some ways this movie could play up the ways the media has become so integral to the way we predetermine someone’s guilt, undermining the core concept of “innocent until proven guilty.” And because this movie asks us in some ways to identify with Bundy, if only because of his claims that he’s being railroaded as well as because we never see him commit the heinous crimes he’s accused of, there’s a bit of a mob mentality thing going on. It’s the type of human ugliness that Fritz Lang captures so well, most notably at the end of M (1931), his thriller about the search for a child murderer. You see it again in Fury (1936), the Spencer Tracy film in which Tracy plays someone wrongfully accused of a kidnapping.
So Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Vile and Evil has a lot of ideas in play, but it never seems able to commit to any one of them. The performances are good, and it’s a beautifully shot film but the characters feel vastly underwritten or at least misplaced, and the movie can’t find the right point of view.
Up Next: The Only Son (1936), Serenity (2019), Floating Weeds (1959)