In 2019 alone, documentary director, Joe Berlinger—whose passion has always been true crime documentaries and Metallica documentaries—has spawned two works related to the life of the serial killer, Ted Bundy. Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, a 4-episode documentary covering taped conversation with the killer, was released on Netflix earlier this year. The second one is Extemely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile which marks the director’s return to narrative feature (after the lambasted Book of Shadow: Blair Witch, which attempts to exploit his raw documentary style).
In any way, the movie is controversial. Firstly, it looks as if it attempts to romanticize the “heart-throbbing” serial killer and the movie goes as far as casting another heartthrob, Zac Efron. You’ll be surprised when you see there’s something seducing yet villainous in Efron’s eyes that will immediately remind you of how Bundy stares. Secondly, it deliberately takes an ambiguous stance, treating the subject as in Berlinger’s famous work, Paradise Lost, which successfully unearth an ambiguous murder case; even, when we have learned that Bundy had confessed the murders of 30 young women. Thirdly and most importantly, the whole movie attempts to put into the frame that Ted Bundy had some sort of feelings, as insinuated with his obsession towards Liz Koepfer (in the movie, Kendall) portrayed by Lily Collins.
The movie starts in medias res as Bundy converses with Liz Kendall about the first time they met back in 1969. From there, Extremely Wicked begins to delve into the story of how Liz, a single mother, falls for Bundy and stays a lover amidst a series of trials against Bundy. For her, the whole life with Bundy is a struggle of denying the truth that her lover is a heartless monster. She insists to believe in Bundy and his argument that he’s been falsely accused. The irony that the serial killer keeps the women of his life unscathed might provide a new layer to his narrative; at the same time, it might seem a little too deviated from being emphatic to the victims.
However, Extremely Wicked never consistently follows the frame it tries to set up. At times, the story will stray to exclusively follow Bundy in the prison: how he works his way out the prisons twice, how he stages his defense in the spectacular-minded trials broadcasted on television or how he gets involved with Carole Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario, The Maze Runner, Crawls). Poisoned with the weak script and choppy editing, the movie staggers in attempting to recreate each of the scenes involving the public appearance of Ted Bundy as close as the reality. Basically, Berlinger forces this narrative feature into a semi-documentary feature, substituting the real footages with carefully choreographed re-enactment. In the end, Collin’s Liz is put away in the background, outshone by Ted Bundy’s wicked charisma.
Efron charismatically walks on Bundy’s shoes—making even the slightest gesture that reminds you of how Bundy appears in public. A heartthrob himself, Efron, is able to emanate the vicious atmosphere sprain from his looks. This is most probably the best work he’s done so far, individually. When it comes to Collins’ Liz Kendall, however, Extremely Wicked heads to a brick. It’s not that her performance is weak; in fact, it’s essential, especially the disgusted look on her face when Liz tries to remember how the victims’ family pitied her on the trials. The thing is the script looks away from her character, leaving her in the end as a crying doll in the backdrop. In the story that centers on the relationship between Bundy and Liz, she’s out of the league.
Berlinger plays a little with some goofs here and there, including the cameo of Metallica’s James Hetfield on the biopic. And yet, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile ends up being some sort of biopic trying to romanticizing Ted Bundy with chopped off-script. It can only work because of Zac Efron’s resemblance to the heart-throbbing killer and his commitment to be engulfing his performance completely by carrying the killer’s vicious charisma.