Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Directed by Joe Berlinger
"And that they were extremely wicked, shockingly evil, vile and the product of a design to inflict a high degree of pain and utter indifference to human life." - Judge Edward Cowart, post-sentencing remarks to Ted Bundy
January 24th, 1989 and Ted Bundy takes a final breath. Sentenced to death for the murder of 12-year-old Kimberly Leach, he had left a trail of bodies across at least seven states, confessing to 30 murders between 1974 and 1978. The actual number? Only Bundy knew and he took that knowledge with him. One of his own lawyers wrote that Bundy was "the very definition of heartless evil." Law student, Republican, suicide hotline crisis worker. Serial killer, kidnapper, rapist, burglar, and necrophile.
And here we are, 30 years later. And Netflix has two Bundy projects, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, both directed by Joe Berlinger. And today, well, today, I'm going to try to write something about a movie that features one of the most notorious monsters of, well, ever.
First thing you have to understand about Extremely Wicked is that it is not a gore fest. It steers away from the horror of Bundy's murders. Instead of a more traditional horror film, Extremely Wicked is a character study. And instead of attempting the impossible, the why behind Bundy's shark eyes, it attempts something different, the why behind Liz Kendall's nearly decade-long relationship with this monster. And at the end of it, as the credits roll, we're not questioning Liz Kendall, we're left questioning ourselves. How well do we know our co-workers, colleagues, friends, family? Liz could be any of us. This charming, handsome man with the easy smile and the animal charm, the evidence against him was mostly circumstantial, especially in the Pacific Northwest killings. Watching Extremely Wicked, we can almost understand Liz Kendall. And watching Lily Collins performance as Liz Kendall, I can now understand, I think, why some researchers have also included her and her daughter as Bundy victims.
Lily Collins' Liz starts out in a place of weakness when she meets Bundy, a divorcee, a single mother. It's 1968 and she's out with a friend who is trying to build her back up when she meets the charming, handsome man with the easy smile and the animal charm. This man who won't push sex on her, this man who lets her sleep in and feeds her daughter. Most of the men she's met ran into the night when they found out about the child. This one, this one is making her daughter laugh. It's a shortcut to explain why she fell so heavy for this man, but it's something that any of us can understand. Liz becomes more confident, gains her strength as she spends more time with Bundy. But by the end, by the end we're left with the realization that this is only when she is near him. Away from him, she crumbles. She begins to question her reality. Bundy's like an emotional vampire, feeding off of Liz' adoration.
Which brings us to Zac Efron's performance as Ted Bundy. Lily Collins is so heartbreakingly good, so fully realized as Liz Kendall, she needs someone to do the rest of the heavy lifting. The audience needs to believe that she would fall in love with this shark in a human suit, that even when handed evidence, she couldn't bring herself to believe in his guilt just because he said he was innocent. We need to see this monster as a man. Nothing glamourous, just as a human being. And Zac Efron brings it.
He never gnashes his teeth, he never drools, he never goes over the top. Watching actual footage of Bundy, most of us wonder "who the heck fell for this?" Watching Mr. Efron, I think I understand. Mr. Efron underplays the monster to such a degree that sometimes I was left wondering "was that a trick of editing or lighting? Did I really see the septic thing that lived in Bundy's brain?" I can't really explain what Mr. Efron did. It's almost like he turned on his supernatural charm to hide his performance as the beast and would occasionally drop the charm for a moment or two and then crank it back up to 11. It's like this - in Extremely Wicked Zac Efron is playing a monster pretending to be normal and the monster is a really, really, really good at it.
Extremely Wicked does miss some opportunities, and at times it does look like a film made by someone not used to making fiction film. But the performances in this thing, that is where the money is. Those are the reasons to watch this film. Mr. Efron's and Ms Collins' performances are outstanding and perfectly balanced. A little too much or too little, and the whole enterprise falls apart. Extremely Wicked is a character study, first. A hint of false, a hint of not being in the moment, not being real, and the entire enterprise falls apart.
Look. There can never be an fully accurate biopic of Ted Bundy, it's never going to happen. Many have tried, all to varying degrees of failure. Part of the problem is always going to be the level of pure horror Bundy put his victims through, both before they died and after. And part of the problem will always be Bundy's need to control his narrative. The man lied like the rest of us breathe. Hours before his execution he gave an interview to a Christian family publication in which he blamed his crimes on pornography. His confessions became known among law enforcement as "bones for time", in which he would tease investigators and families with hints of the locations of remains, always with the promise of more, more, more if he could have more time, if Florida wouldn't put him down. Since he was executed, it has taken investigators decades to confirm most of the 30 he confessed to. But there are still the missing ones, the women he didn't name but whose murders he did confess to. Extremely Wicked doesn't tell these stories.
Extremely Wicked tells the story of someone who survived. Against all odds, with everything stacked against her, she survived. And, for the most part, this is her story.