Netflix Now: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) Reviewed

Short of surgically lowering his cheekbones, Zac Efron is doing just about everything he can lately to shake his Disney-fied pretty boy persona. At this point in his career, he’s roughly where Brad Pitt was circa 1995: shorn of his long blond locks, but unable to convincingly grow a grizzled goatee. Nonetheless, he’s a perfect choice to portray Ted Bundy in—(deep breath)—Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile; and his work is committed, nuanced, charismatic, and compelling. It’s enough to make the spectacular failure that is the rest of the film that much more disappointing, because he’s clearly turning in the performance of his career here. 

That said, to call the rest of the film a dumpster fire wouldn’t be quite fair, largely because dumpster fires have done nothing to deserve the comparison. 

Biopic? More like myopic. *Crickets* 

If you’ve somehow been living under a rock for the last six months or lack reliable access to electricity, perhaps you’re unaware that Theodore Robert Bundy was “the most notorious serial killer of the 20th century.” For a ten-year run in the 1970s, he murdered at least thirty (possibly as many as one hundred) women in six states, only confessing to his crimes in an eleventh-hour attempt to avoid Florida’s electric chair. (He infamously blamed his whole pathology on an addiction to pornography, shamelessly pandering to Christian evangelist Dr. James Dobson by telling him exactly what he wanted to hear.) His weapons of choice were blunt objects: crowbars, baseball bats, oak tree branches- anything he could get his hands on. The sheer savagery of it all was a perfect channel for his contemptible misogynistic rage, the root of which we may never understand. 

Yet, in an admirable attempt to avoid exploitation, director Joe Berlinger spends almost no time dwelling on the lurid details of these crimes. Rather, the story is told through the eyes of Bundy’s long-time girlfriend, single mother Liz Kendall (Kloepfer, in real life), movingly portrayed by British actress and model Lily Collins. The film opens in 1969 with their love-at-first-sight introduction in a Seattle bar, and quickly attempts to set up the premise of how easily we can fall into denial that we’re, you know, in love with a serial killer, especially when we’re lonely and emotionally vulnerable and masking a drinking problem. It’s admittedly an intriguing concept, and one that could have been explored to great effect, had Kendall been given more to do than mope around her house in tears while avoiding Bundy’s jailhouse phone calls. (Seriously, it takes almost an hour and a half before she realizes she can simply unplug her landline.) Had Kendall been written as the main character of this film, with the story focused on her betrayal, pain, self-recrimination, and guilt, the audience could have enjoyed a profound character study on the nature of codependency.  

Instead, where the film ultimately fails is in its inability to decide what it wants to be. While ostensibly told through the lens of Kendall’s experience, the narrative abruptly shifts gears halfway through and becomes a hackneyed courtroom thriller. Bundy’s 1979 Florida trial for the double murder of Chi Omega sorority sisters Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy was America’s first nationally televised trial, and by every account was a farcical three-ring circus. It was a sickening miscarriage of justice, not by virtue of its well-deserved guilty verdict, but because Bundy was given full sway to represent himself as his own attorney, constantly mugging for the cameras and playing for laughs to the courtroom packed full of groupies. He even infamously proposed to a character witness during her testimony (Kaya Scodelario as Carol Anne Boone, who later went on to have his child while Bundy was on death row), and the presiding judge sickeningly rolled out the red carpet for his defendant’s white privilege, heaping praise on him while quipping “bless your heart, partner.” In a state where Trayvon Martin cannot find justice forty years later, it’s enough to make anyone vomit. 

Berlinger (who also directed Netflix’s companion piece Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, directed simultaneously) can’t seem to realize that his attempt to empathize with Kendall’s denial ultimately portrays Bundy as sympathetic, falsely accused of horrendous crimes he didn’t commit. While Efron does a phenomenal job in his portrayal, the audience is yet again left with the same tired conclusion the media has been spewing at us for forty years: Ted Bundy was witty, charming, and handsome; and who could ever believe he’d kill anyone? Extremely Wicked has no insight or takeaways other than that it’s easy to fall for someone as good-looking as Zac Efron. 

The small handful of women who were lucky enough to escape from Ted Bundy with their lives had a very different story to tell. He didn’t use charm and charisma to seduce his victims. He disguised himself as an authority figure, or pretended to be disabled. He used deception and subterfuge. “Charming and charismatic” is exactly the legacy Bundy himself would want us to believe in. Let’s put this last nail in the coffin: skip Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, and let him rot. 

-Eugene Kelly