Those who aren’t somewhat fascinated by the story of evil men such as Ted Bundy are most likely lying. This is why films like Zodiac and Se7en are such great films, because they manage to successfully build off of this morbid curiosity that viewers seem to have. Joe Berlinger, a successful documentarian, attempts to take that phenomenon to the story of serial killer Ted Bundy with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a sort-of companion piece to Berlinger’s earlier documentary series titled Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. I have only viewed the feature-length film, so the documentary film did not affect my judgement for better or worse here.
Zac Efron portrays Bundy in the film, and he is introduced in the beginning as a kind and ernest man even though these scenes are undercut with flash-forwards to a conversation Lily Collins’ character is having with Bundy later on when he is in jail. Soon the flash-forwards cease, and the film turns into a retelling of the end of Bundy’s serial killing days leading to his eventual capture. Efron has the hardest job of the lot here, for playing a serial killer is no walk in the park, and he, for the most part, does a fine job. He disappears into Bundy’s fake smiles and constant manipulation, and by the end I forgot I was watching Zac Efron give a performance. He was a very convincing serial killer, although I wish there were more subtle tics or movements that made him truly become Ted Bundy.
However, the heart and soul of the film is Collins as Bundy’s fiance Liz, who is deceived into thinking he is a genuine man only to find the darkness underneath when multiple arrests complicate matters. She plays the role of the audience, even though they know Bundy’s secrets simply from the fact that it’s in the film’s description. Collins transforms from a happy and pleased young girl to a mature and weathered woman before our eyes, outshining Efron’s Bundy in the process. Some recognizable supporting actors (John Malkovich, Jim Parsons, Haley Joel Osment) round out the cast with good performances all around; Kaya Scodelario stands out as one of the best as Bundy’s stubbornly loyal girlfriend while he is in jail and death row.
Berlinger assembles a cast that is ready and willing to perform anything he throws at them, and he gives them the dialogue to shine. However, it is clear he is a documentary filmmaker at heart, because the story structure and editing are a bit messy. In particular, the perspectives of the narrative seem to shift in between acts, and this diminishes any themes the film could have carried. For the first third, the events are seen from Collins’ perspective, giving Collins ample time to shine and showcasing the deception of Bundy through a victim’s eyes. This is a fascinating angle for a serial killer movie, and I was intrigued to see what direction Berlinger would take it and how he would bring forward the voice of those taken advantage of.
Then, in the second act, the film changes from her perspective to show Bundy’s tumultuous days in prison and his sentencing trial. This is still interesting and the pacing was competent enough so that I was never bored, but neither perspective gave off the full arc that was needed because neither was focused on for the full runtime. Berlinger needed to pick an angle– show it from the victim’s POV or from the serial killer’s–but he attempts both, which dampens the impact of the final product. I’d have liked it to be more in-depth at times as well–I’m not saying I wanted every grisly murder to be shown on screen but the film ends up becoming a surface-level courtroom drama, and while this is entertaining enough to pass the time I wanted more of a deeper dive regarding the psyche of either Bundy or his fiancé.
I also wasn’t a huge fan of the editing in certain scenes of conversation between characters. There were often too many cuts between two people in a regular interaction and one scene even left me a little dizzy. This scene combines a circular camera movement with too many cuts making it difficult to fully take in.
This Netflix Ted Bundy biopic of sorts is worth watching for the performances alone and because the story is interesting enough to carry the audience through the movie without boredom. Weirdly enough, even though it is a film about a serial killer the subject matter is relatively light, so it’s a good movie to turn on in the background while doing something else. However, when giving one’s full attention, the film isn’t particularly rewarding because it does nothing revolutionary to advance the genre forward and doesn’t give the audience enough to grasp onto as a character study. With expectations in check, this is a watchable movie and there is considerable talent showcased on screen regardless.
I give Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile a B-.