Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Ted Bundy has been experiencing a morbid little renaissance in recent months, thanks in no small part to Joe Berlinger. Berlinger executive produced the Netflix documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and now returns to the infamous subject for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, an adaptation of a memoir written by Elizabeth Kloepfer, Bundy’s longtime girlfriend through the 1970s. Ostensibly relating the media frenzy of his arrests and subsequent escapes from custody through Liz’s (Lily Collins) eyes, Berlinger and screenwriter Michael Werwie instead find themselves mired in recreating the public spectacle she sought to avoid and, in the process, relegate Liz to the footnotes of her own story.
The film stumbles early, granting Liz and Ted (Zac Efron) a meet-cute at the local college bar and then skipping over the formative early months of their courtship. With scarce opportunities to conjure a measure of chemistry, it’s difficult to believe Liz’s devotion when Bundy is arrested, and then escapes from custody, in Utah for the aggravated assault of a young woman. Vile touches on each major development in Bundy’s criminal career and downfall, some of them bordering on the absurd…but still true. Despite the provocative title, the film avoids any depiction of the murders or assaults save for a few, brief glimpses of crime scene photos. By the end, it functions primarily as a courtroom drama whose verdict we already know, deigning to check in on Liz and her burgeoning alcoholism infrequently.
Meant to anchor the film, Efron bores as the charismatic killer. For much of the runtime I wondered if, in this glut of true crime documentaries, murderers had simply lost some of their charm. Then the credits began to roll, accompanied by archival footage from Bundy’s arrest in Florida and the ensuing trial. While the clips confirm Berlinger’s attention to historical detail, they also underline how bland Efron’s performance stacks up in comparison to the magnetism of his real-life counterpart. He feels neither charming nor dangerous, a defanged viper that’s merely a touch creepy.
Collins tries, bless her heart, but is given so little to work with when the film focuses squarely on Bundy after his first arrest. The supporting cast is populated with familiar faces like Haley Joel Osment, Kaya Scodelario, Angela Sarafyan, and Terry Kinney. Jim Parsons and John Malkovich are squandered as the prosecutor and judge presiding over the Florida State University murder trial, respectively.
There is nothing remotely extreme, shocking, or even approaching vile in this tepid recreation of Bundy’s criminal dramas. Berlinger provides some admirable reenactments of courtroom scenes and media interviews, admittedly hamstrung by bloodless performances and miscasting. Curious viewers already have access to Bundy’s side of the tale, as well as the sensational media coverage that accompanied him, so perhaps the most provocative aspect of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is the silencing of the new, innocent voices it claims to uplift.
In select theaters and on Netflix Friday May 3rd.
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