Over the last few years our culture has become strangely obsessed with true crime stories leading to a slew of documentaries about famous and obscure murder mysteries and criminals gracing the small screen. Of course, among the most famous and notoriously popular murderers in American history was Ted Bundy whose legacy was brought back to the public eye thanks to a Netflix documentary “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” released in January of this year. Now only a few months later the same director, documentary specialist Joe Berlinger, takes on the story of Bundy once again in another Netflix film, this time a narrative story called “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” telling of Bundy’s legendary court case and conviction through the perspective of his one-time girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall. It seems to have been released at the right time, with the right hype and a capable and knowledgeable filmmaker at the helm and a slew of talented actors to bring it all together. So how well does all of this potential come through in the final product? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” which I will call “Extremely Wicked” for most of this review is based on the memoir “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy” by Elizabeth “Liz” Kendall who dated Bundy before and during the early years of his court battles as a suspect for his infamous killings. The film explores how Liz (Lily Collins) came to meet and fall for Ted Bundy (Zac Efron) but when Bundy becomes the prime suspect in a slew of terrifying murders Liz finds herself standing by him hoping his conviction is overturned. However, as Bundy’s true nature becomes more apparent Liz chooses to separate herself from the legendary killer, but when his iconic court battle to prove his innocence becomes a nationally televised event Liz begins to suffer from survivor’s guilt while a nation looks on and Ted Bundy attempts to clear his name becoming a social pariah in the process.
“Extremely Wicked”, which has been a much-anticipated film over the last year or so, does a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong. Like many films I review, how much you enjoy it could depend heavily on what you’re looking for. This is not a movie chronicling Ted Bundy’s crimes as much as it is a look at how his crimes effected someone close to him and how his court case became possibly the first major case of public infatuation with a controversial criminal in modern history. In fact, we only actually see one of Bundy’s brutal crimes and it’s brief at best. Instead we’re given insight into Bundy’s mental state with Zac Efron proving to be an absolute force bringing a charismatic, focused and surprisingly believable performance to the screen. This film focuses a lot less on visualizing the graphic and unspeakable crimes this man committed and is more about Bundy the sociopath. Efron manages to be very convincing as he tries to prove himself innocent not only in the eyes of the court but also in the eyes of the viewer as well. We don’t often get to see real life villains portrayed this way. Usually they’re accentuated, over the top, and seen through a specific lens meant to paint them as the evil they are. In this film we’re instead shown how Bundy was able to earn respect and admiration even when people know he was guilty.
For me this was the most fascinating aspect of the film and played into what ended up being a minor, slightly hidden theme that is extremely relevant to this day. When Bundy was being tried for his murders he was seen as a heartthrob and even his eventual wife Carole Ann Boone, very well portrayed by a nearly unrecognizable Kaya Scodelario, attempts to paint him as a harmless sweetheart wronged by a system bent on bringing him down. Joe Berlinger uses his experience with documentaries to sneakily work in a strange quirk of public opinion that has haunted the United States ever since Bundy’s case as other horrible criminals, including the Columbine shooters and the Boston Marathon bomber, have also been praised by people for their attractive looks. I remember hearing women say Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was “too hot to be guilty” and that’s exactly how some view Bundy in this film. In some ways this movie is a fine portrayal of how the Bundy case changed public perception of crime and criminals and not always for the better. After all it was the first nationally televised court case in the nation’s history paving the way for similar infamous trials like the O.J. Simpson case, Jeffrey Dahmer and Casey Anthony. This, in my opinion, would have made for such an interesting and ironic idea considering how the public fascination with true crime stories pretty much led to this film’s conception but sadly it’s played off as more of a side plot to the actual story.
Instead “Extremely Wicked” tries to go in a different direction, and it’s a very noble one. At its core “Extremely Wicked” is meant to be a take on Liz Kendall’s perspective not Ted Bundy’s. Lily Collins plays the former flame of Bundy who dated the killer until years into his prison time and had to face him on her television screen day after day as his court case went on. This resulted in her feeling partially responsible for him not being brought to justice sooner. We do see how her torture and struggle with survivor’s guilt and even her devotion to the man who would soon become a public obsession influenced her life. Lily Collins does an incredible job capturing the nuanced emotional strife this woman had to face, but sadly Kendall becomes a side character in her own story eventually. For probably the first half of the film, maybe more, the focus is split pretty evenly between Bundy and Kendall as we see him get arrested, escape and try to get back to Liz which helps justify Kendall’s emotional connection to Bundy. He essentially tricks her into being his confidant, his rock, the person who believes him no matter what and we do get to experience how all of this pressure and anguish damages Kendall. But once the famous court case begins Kendall becomes nothing more than an onlooker just like us.
The focus becomes squarely on Bundy and his character while we get moments where he tries to contact Liz and she struggles to come to terms with having dated a killer. It’s not until the end that an important detail left hidden through most of the narrative is revealed that we understand, in part, why she is so tortured by the relationship and it does all lead to a fantastic final scene where Liz finally gets to address Bundy about his supposed crimes, but for a film meant to show things from the woman’s perspective “Extremely Wicked” could have and should have approached this with much more conviction and more focused direction. Considering that women empowerment, especially in relationships, is an important subject of discussion in modern society it could have been just as interesting as the idea of Bundy being the origin of public infatuation with criminals. But neither concept is really explored to the depth they deserve and the film gets lost in its own infatuation with Bundy leaving who was supposed to be the film’s central character, Liz, on the sidelines for most of the final act and becoming an interesting but ultimately predictable character study of the famous murderer more than anything else. If they wanted to make a Ted Bundy movie they should have just made a full-on Ted Bundy movie because he really does become the star of the show by the end of it all.
This could have something to do with director Joe Berlinger’s fascination with documentary filmmaking as that art requires a focus of character study and understanding of the subject. Unfortunately, the focus is on the wrong subject, at least according to the stated goals of the film. This was supposed to be Liz’s story and it’s not. Ted Bundy is still the star no matter how hard the story tries to veer away from it. Unfortunately, even that isn’t as interesting as it could be. It’s actually nice we didn’t see the crimes unfold before our eyes because it left most of the focus on the man not the monster, but the presentation and story telling is actually very boring at times and feels more like a documentary style film meant to project facts more than arouse thrills. The pacing is odd, the editing can be a bit choppy and there seems to be an overarching attempt to say too much in too little time which, in a documentary, can work to the film’s benefit but here it makes the story feel jumbled, slow and, at times, uninteresting. But at the same time, I can’t say I wasn’t invested. Thanks to powerhouse performances, and an often solid script combining real life quotes and original content as well as some great costume and makeup designs I found myself at least immersed in the setting and intrigued by what the story was offering even if it was in small parts. Ted Bundy as a person and a character is still just as interesting as he always was and it is nice to see how his vile lifestyle effected another person not physically, but emotionally. It’s an important perspective we NEED to see in more films. I just wish this film did it a little more justice instead of almost glorifying the man who brought on that emotional pain.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” isn’t the impressive cinematic feat everyone probably hoped it would be, but it has its moments. There’s a lot of potential here for great, unique storytelling but sadly none of these themes are handled with the focus or conviction they deserve other than Bundy himself. I’ll give it this: even with a lack of focus and odd, slow pacing “Extremely Wicked” earns its keep with magnetic performances and a unique look at a horrible villain of a man that helps at least mildly touch on important concepts like the public fascination with crime and the torture of a woman who once loved a monster. For me I think this film tries to do too much sometimes and fails to rise to the occasion other times so for every great thing it offers there’s one area or idea it could have explored a little bit better. With that in mind “Extremely Wicked” is just an okay film. I respect what Joe Berlinger was trying to do and I appreciate his examination of the mind behind the man that would become one of if not the most famous killer in modern American history, but clearly the intent wasn’t to just focus on Bundy yet by the end of it all Bundy is, in fact, the main focus who gets the most significant screen time and the most development. It is worth a watch? Absolutely, but it’s nothing special. It’s probably more than enough to satisfy the appetite of any true crime obsessed individual destined to try it out but for casual viewers it might end up being an underwhelming, if intriguing, film that could have been a whole lot more.