Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, or: Mixed-up, Confused, and Sometimes Devastating
Is this a film about the exploits of serial killer Ted Bundy? Is it the story of Liz Kendall, former girlfriend of said killer Bundy, and how she dealt with having a seemingly innocuous relationship with a man who was really a monster? Or is it a film about the celebrity of a serial killer, and how women and even the press and his courtroom judge were all impressed and infatuated with such a man?
That’s kind of the problem; this film tries to be all of those things and ends up instead as a bit of a mess.
The movie starts with Bundy in jail, on death row, being visited by Liz, his former flame and a woman tormented by the knowledge that she was once in love with a man who has done monstrous things. She asks him if he remembers how they met and the film unspools from there, one long flashback with several flashbacks on flashbacks peppered in as well. We learn about how charming Bundy was. We see Liz and her daughter fall in love with him. We see Bundy get caught and then spun into an Hitchcockian web of “Wrong Man” tropes (only we as the audience know that he is fully and completely the “Right Man”), where he escapes from jail twice and finally ends up getting nabbed for a final time in a very similar way to his first time getting caught: a traffic violation. Along the way, we get whimsical Bundy, we get dancing and beautiful Bundy, and we get the charm-you-out-of-your-pants Bundy. But we never get the real Bundy. Well, we do, for one devastatingly powerful moment. We also get a lot of jumping from perspective to perspective, and it’s this lack of a central focus that ultimately turns what could have been a compelling and fascinating take on the impact of a serial killer on the lives of ordinary people into something that’s just, quite simply, a mess. The narrative can never decide what kind of movie this is going to be. Is it about Liz? Is it about Ted? Is it about the media and his fans? Because it never settles in, it never gives you a place to hang your hat, and you’re now walking on sifting sand, pulling out individual moments from a fragmented whole.
And there are many fantastic individual moments. The final ten minutes or so, when Liz is confronting Ted, when she is begging with him to tell her the truth for once, is at turns horrifying and gut-wrenching, culminating in that one powerful moment where Bundy finally owns up to what he’s done. All the actors are terrific in the film and it’s worth seeing, really, just for Zac Efron’s performance alone. He is at once charming, hip, sweet, and sexy as Ted Bundy. He plays the part perfectly and, from his (deceiving) point of view, he’s an innocent man who can’t understand why all of this is happening to him. It’s easy to see why cameras glommed onto him, why the media was so taken with him, and why so many women found (find) him to be so attractive. He nails it.
The other problem I have with the film is in its tone. There are far too many whimsical moments for me in a story about a very sick monster who did some beyond depraved things. I get it if the film was supposed to be from Bundy’s point of view. I can understand the enthusiastic pop songs blaring as he lives his life and is the charming devil. But as I’ve said, the perspectives are all over the place, so these moments come across as crass when they are meant to be light-hearted. It’s actually reprehensible at times, but I’m more than willing to give director Berlinger the benefit of the doubt given his track record as a filmmaker. I think these scenes were done for a purpose, but I think it gets lost in the lack of narrative focus.
It’s a shame, because buried in here are some absolutely stunning performances and many individual scenes that are quite powerful. They just get lost in the soup. This isn’t a bad movie or a terribly made film, but its flaws add up to make it average, at best. Worth a watch, but a mediocre one.
Two Stars out of Four.
Extremely Wicked is streaming on Netflix as of this writing.