Biopics about serial killers can go in a few obvious directions. One could be that you see grisly murder after murder with the filmmaker relying solely on gore and shock to interest you. The other could be that the film could simply opt to paint the murderer as an obvious monster that those around him should feel guilty for not realizing the truth about sooner, like in My Friend Dahmer (2017). What Joe Berlinger does with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (2019) instead shows you how charismatic Ted Bundy was through a strong lead performance from Zac Efron, making the audience not only believe the lies Bundy feeds Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) and the rest of the world but also leaves them feeling bad for him.
This movie is extremely interesting, shockingly charming, but still vile.
This choice in style was a bold one, as I don’t think many people want to sympathize with a serial killer. In fact, at my screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, I was a little disgusted by the initial laughs the crowd gave when Bundy first appeared on-screen. However, it wasn’t too long after the film got going that I decided to go with Berlinger’s vision, despite my initial apprehension. I think this choice works with this particular story, because of Bundy’s ability to pull the proverbial wool over everyone’s eyes. While I didn’t know all the details of his case or situations, I grew up knowing that Bundy was a horrific serial killer whose run ended in my home state of Florida. Thus, when I felt unsure while watching the film, I was able to better understand those who refused to believe this man could be guilty of the crimes.
I really enjoyed the two lead performances in this film as well. Both Collins and Efron get some very powerful scenes in the film. A standout is the first time they meet at a college bar. He approaches her at the jukebox, and they share a dance. Their chemistry is undeniable, and all the more troubling. One question the film never really addresses is why Bundy didn’t kill Liz. In many ways, since he mostly denied being guilty up until the final days of his life, it is unlikely that anyone knows what drove him to commit all the atrocities he is accused of. Yet, it was the question that I felt itching at the back of my mind during the whole film: why Liz? What was it about her that saved her life? How many close calls did she encounter while with him? It is a compelling mystery to the horrific story of their relationship, and the two performances only add to that dynamic.
Efron’s charm definitely gets much of the credit for the film really working with Berlinger’s vision, but there were a few casting choices that pulled me out of the movie a bit. Both Jim Parsons as Florida Prosecutor Larry Simpson and John Malkovich as Judge Edward D. Cowart gave solid performances, but their personas are too familiar, and they broke out of their characters. There were moments during the court case that I initially thought were too silly or unrealistic, but real footage was shown during the credits that made those scenes feel all the more insane, as they really had happened.
The best part for you, the reader, about Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is that this is a rare film festival review that you can see RIGHT NOW. It dropped on Netflix May 3rd, so if anything about the film interests you, now is the time to check it out. I give Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.