There's something about playing a real-life killer that is a magnet for actors when they want to be taken seriously. Charlize Theron's Oscar-winning portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in the 2002 movie Monster elevated her to the ranks of Hollywood's most in-demand stars, while Steve Carell went from lovable comedian to intense character actor when he took on the role of sociopathic John du Pont in Foxcatcher. Now, Zac Efron is the latest star to attempt to shed his former teen idol image, by playing Ted Bundy, one of America's most notorious serial killers.
While Theron famously underwent a physical transformation to play Wuornos, Efron was cast for his looks. Bundy was known for being a smart, handsome, charismatic mass murderer whose trials were attended by college girls eager to get close to him, and Efron's casting makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, his compelling performance is stranded in a movie that makes some serious missteps in its attempts to present a new spin on the serial killer film.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile takes its title from the description leveled at Bundy by the judge in his 1979 sentencing. It's a provocative title and suggests a dark plunge into the depraved mind of a relentless kidnapper, rapist, necrophile, and killer who admitted to murdering 30 women between 1974 and 1978, but whose victim count could potentially be far higher. Director Joe Berlinger wanted to do something different, though. His movie focuses less on the crimes itself, and more on the cult of personality around Bundy, and most specifically his relationship with two women in his life--long-time girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins), and Carole Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario), the woman he married while awaiting trial.
The film has a flashback structure, starting with Kendall visiting him on death row, and then moving back to the start of their relationship. Bundy was first arrested in 1974 from an anonymous tip-off, and the bulk of the film sees him either on bail or in jail, awaiting trial. Throughout this time Kendall stands by him, refusing to believe the terrible crimes that Bundy has been accused of and that he consistently denies, despite the evidence and trail of victims strewn across several states. As their relationship slowly breaks down, old flame Boone re-enters his life.
It would be a mistake to think that a serial killer movie has to wallow in violent imagery to be effective. The decision to not show any of Bundy's murders--with the exception of one brief moment toward the end--was a very deliberate one, and it could be argued that, like Kendall and Boone, as an audience we are removed from the true horror of his crimes. The difference is that we know what Bundy did, but Efron's easy charm and the movie's insistence on almost never portraying him in a negative light ultimately cheapens the subject matter and lessens the dramatic impact.
Much of the film is spent with Bundy proclaiming his innocence while getting moved from state to state, jailhouse to courthouse, and occasionally planning an escape. It simply doesn't make for very interesting viewing, and little effort is spent to get inside Bundy's head. The movie is not a thriller, as the outcome is well known, but neither is it a horror movie or effective psychological drama; instead we're left with a recreation of already well-documented events (Bundy's trial was the first televised in the US) and a very shallow portrayal of real-life characters. No time is spent on the victims of his crimes either, and after a while it's easy to forget that this is a movie about a serial killer at all.
In their attempts to desensationalize the material, Berlinger and screenwriter Michael Werwie omit some of the more interesting aspects of Bundy's life. Bundy made two separate escapes--once from a courthouse, after which he nearly died after spending six days in the mountains of Colorado, the other from jail in a meticulously planned escape--but both are dealt with very quickly before he's back in prison. The other curious aspect is that Bundy--a law student before his arrest--represented himself in court. But again, while we see Bundy doing this, it bears no resemblance to the manic figure he actually was while appearing in court, and little time is spent on the insane media circus that built up around his appearances. Any of these aspects could've made for a more interesting movie than the one we're ultimately presented with.
Despite the often underwritten characters, the performances are good. Even though she is sidelined in the movie's last third, Collins evokes sympathy as Kendall, who utterly falls under Bundy's manipulative spell, while Scodelario cuts a tragic figure as Boone, who marries him as he awaits sentencing. Even the smaller roles are filled with famous faces--John Malkovich, Haley Joel Osment, and Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons all appear at various stages (as does Metallica's James Hetfield in a fleeting cameo).
Berlinger is best known for his documentary work, including the brilliant, devastating Paradise Lost movies. He had already tackled Bundy in the Netflix true crime series The Bundy Tapes, and while this series is not his best work, it does offer more insight than the movie version. In a way, Bundy is a hard subject to understand--he only confessed to his killings at the end of his life, and much of what is known about him has already been documented various times over the years. But given Berlinger’s familiarity with the subject, it's disappointing that Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile avoids exploring the true horror of his crimes, while offering little else in its place.