Tom Crowley takes an alternative look at Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.
The true-crime genre has exploded into the public conscious. Its ascension is almost directly parallel to the phenomenon that is Netflix. The more people click on these programmes, the more will be produced and usually with quantity, quality takes a hit. Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger has made a career out of true crime. His masterpiece being 1996’s chilling Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which he directed with long-time collaborator Bruce Sinofsky, now deceased. The style of that documentary formed the basis for the wildly popular Making a Murder (2015), produced by Netflix for the masses hungry to binge watch injustices. Berlinger himself has made a true crime documentary for Netflix, the four-part Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019), which is one of the better entries into the already saturated true-crime canon.
Berlinger’s latest narrative film has the same psychopathic subject at its centre, Ted Bundy, who, before his death by electric chair, confessed to over 30 murders, including that of a 12-year-old girl. In Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a title about as glib as the film’s subject, Bundy, played by Zac Efron, gets close-ups to a groovy 1970’s soundtrack. Promotions for the film purport it as being told from the perspective of his long-time girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) and that its adapted from her book ‘The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy’. In fact Liz Kendall gets very little character development, resigned to being goo-eyed when Bundy is wooing her and crying, drinking and neglecting her daughter when Bundy is standing trial. Outside of this we don’t get to know who Kendall is, this is clearly Bundy’s film. He, even above Efron, is the star.
Before readers get disillusioned with the bashing of what has now become a beloved genre, there has been some fabulous and intriguing films about serial killers, from John Naughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), to David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), to more recently Marc Meyers’s My Friend Dahmer (2017) and Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built (2018). Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is just not one of them. The film treats Bundy like a rock star, its structure more akin to a music biopic, and a bad one at that. Berlinger’s film achieves nothing beyond his own Netflix documentary. He strangely leaves out what could have been fictionalised and decides to reconstruct already documented video tapes with Zac Efron. How did Bundy survive on his own for days in the Colorado Mountains? What were the intricacies of his second prison escape? Berlinger is happy to walk over trodden ground. There is an actual interview with Bundy, which acts as a type of epilogue for the film. It ruins Efron’s performance. It is a good embodiment from Efron, in his first real stab at serious acting, he is full of charm, which is said to be one of Bundy’s key tools in his murderous arsenal. However, his eyes are too soft, he never captured the complete mania which exuded from the man.
The title card at the beginning of the film reads ‘Few people have the imagination for reality’. Berlinger is one of those people, it is fiction he has the problem with.
Reda Andrew Carroll’s take here: