THE STORY – A chronicle of the crimes of Ted Bundy, from the perspective of his longtime girlfriend, who refused to believe the truth about him for years.
THE CAST – Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, Jeffrey Donovan, Angela Sarafyan, Dylan Baker, Brian Geraghty, Jim Parsons, John Malkovich & Haley Joel Osment
THE TEAM – Joe Berlinger (Director) & Michael Werwie (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 108 Minutes
By Kt Schaefer
Joe Berlinger has been making films about true crime since the beginning of his career, mostly as documentaries, and his first full-length documentary, “Brother’s Keeper” was a multi-award-winning film with critic’s groups and at Sundance in 1992. From there he went on to make what is probably his best-known work, the three-film series, the first of which is “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills”, which turned out to be about a terrible miscarriage of justice that left three teenagers in jail for decades over a horrible crime that they didn’t commit. He is no stranger to films about Ted Bundy either, earlier this year he released a 4-part docu-series on Netflix that detailed the crimes of Bundy and included interviews, confession tapes, and gruesome details about the serial killers’ grisly actions in the 1970s. But his newest film, now on Netflix, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” he takes a very different tack and instead tries to explore how Bundy’s relationship with his long-term girlfriend, Liz Kendall affected her.
This film is unlike any other that includes Ted Bundy (Zac Efron) as a major character, instead of showing us the horrors that he committed, or the lives of the women that he assaulted and killed, it offers us a somewhat fictionalized glimpse at Ted as Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) saw him. It opens with Liz visiting Ted in prison, in a scene familiar from many crime films, with the thick pane of safety glass separating them and communication only available through a black phone handset. It intercuts this with their first meeting, at a college bar where the two hit it off immediately and Ted comes home with her to find she is a single mother. From there it quickly takes us through some happy family moments before showing Ted being arrested in Utah under suspicion of attempted kidnapping. Liz faces uncertainty over his guilt and goes through the trial supporting Ted as he continues to feed her lies and attempts to convince her of both his innocence and his undying love for her.
There are no scenes of murder or descriptions of his crimes in this early part of the film, instead, we see scenes from Liz and Ted’s relationship and Ted’s desperate attempts to escape what would become a cycle of trials and convictions. Despite the lack of brutality to illustrate who Bundy really was, the film never lets us forget that he was the terrible person that we all know him to be. It shows on his face in unguarded moments and we see Liz at these times doing her best to convince herself that this man she loves is innocent of the crimes of which he is accused. The film takes us through most of the big events in Bundy’s trials and eventual escapes, but only in the service of showing how these things affect Liz and later, the next woman he convinced to support him, Carole Anne Boone (Kaya Scodelario). But more than anyone else Liz is the protagonist in this film and it is her experience that it wants us to understand and sympathize with.
The success of this film rests largely on Zac Efron’s performance as Ted Bundy, played too maniacally or too sweet and the nuance that is necessary for this story would have been lost. He skillfully uses his talent to create a chilling portrayal of someone who is both a brutal killer and a nice family man, allowing the darkness to shine through at the right moments to always keep the audience aware that it is all an act on the part of his character. Lily Collins is exceptional as Liz, her performance is understated but captures the pain and doubt and guilt of a survivor that feels spot on for the situation. Their chemistry on screen lends a realistic feel to the twisted relationship being presented and both deserve recognition for their efforts here.
Any attempt to humanize Ted Bundy for the better, a man who confessed to brutally killing over 30 women, one of whom was only twelve years old, will be and should be met with skepticism. He deserves no sympathy or attempts to view him as anything other than what he was, a psychopath who thought of others as disposable things who only existed to use as he wished. Although others will disagree I don’t think that is what Berlinger is attempting or does with “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”. Instead, I think he aims to show us how people like that hurt even the ones they profess to love and how the innocent individuals around them can convince themselves that despite their misgivings, they should continue to support this person. In order to effectively do that the film has to show Ted Bundy from the perspective of Liz Kendall and then refute that perspective with the truth within the same film. It is a tightrope walk of tone and scene that I found to be very successful, but I also think that success will depend a lot on the viewer.
As someone who knows what is probably far too much about the life and crimes of Ted Bundy, there was nothing new or surprising in this film for me. I needed no scenes of his horrific murders to remind me what Bundy was, but for those who don’t have that knowledge, I think it will be a much harder path for the film to walk. It doesn’t shy away from making Bundy appear likable to those around him, which is sometimes hard to watch, but that was also the truth of the situation. Those who knew Ted Bundy as a regular person found him to be handsome, charming and well mannered, someone they could trust implicitly, and it is important that fact not be forgotten, that it is people who commit these atrocious acts, not monsters from some dark underworld.
While the score of the film isn’t anything special, the music-and an occasional lack of it is used to illustrate it’s a point. At times it feels almost like a score for a film about a man who is wrongly accused, playing the deep, sad notes of defeat when he is convicted for example, but at these moments it is showing the faces of the women who are being drawn into his lies, using the music to describe their emotions, not the truth of the situation. And that is very much the point of this film, not to give Ted more screen time that he doesn’t need, but to allow us to understand the women who formed deep relationships with him.
Joe Berlinger has been making documentaries, tv shows and feature films about the brutality that others inflict on each other for decades, showing the darkness of the human heart and mind with the unflinching eye of his camera. He is aware of the complicated and painful truths that reside at the center of the lives of those who murder and destroy other people, and that their victims are not limited to the ones they go on trial for, they affect every life they touch and rarely are those on the periphery afforded a chance to have their stories told. These survivors deserve empathy and understanding and most of all healing and I think that is the message Berlinger is hoping that viewers will take away from “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Zac Effron and Lily Collins give excellent performances in a film that aims to explore the emotions and fallout that was experienced by Liz Kendall, a woman who was a long term girlfriend of Ted Bundy during his trial and convictions. Joe Berlinger aims high with this film in his hopes of giving a nuanced look at their relationship and her life.
THE BAD – Some will find this film objectionable due to the attempt at humanizing one of the most well known serial killers in American history and the subtle way it tries to tell this story will not work for many people. For those unfamiliar with Bundy’s life and crimes, it may fall entirely flat as it necessarily does not provide much backstory or detail regarding him.
THE FINAL SCORE – 7/10