Despite a captivating performance by Zac Efron, Extremely Wicked is hamstrung by its lack of focus and fails to offer a fresh perspective on Bundy.
Given Netflix's success with true crime projects in the past (like Making a Murderer), it came as little surprise when the streaming giant acquired the Ted Bundy docudrama, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, following its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It's actually the second Bundy-related production they've unveiled this year after Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, and hales from the series' director-creator Joe Berlinger, no less. And while Berlinger is clearly well-versed in the people and events of Bundy's life, that doesn't necessarily mean his filmmaking talents are equally up to snuff. Despite a captivating performance by Zac Efron, Extremely Wicked is is hamstrung by its lack of focus and fails to offer a fresh perspective on Bundy.
Adapted from the autobiography The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, Extremely Wicked explores Bundy's life through the eyes of his girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendall (then, Elizabeth Kloepfer), played by Lily Collins. In general, the movie does a nice job of showing how Bundy swept Elizabeth (herself, a young single-parent when they met) off her feet with his politeness and charm, beginning with their original encounter in a Washington bar circa 1969, and continuing on through their blissful life together in the years after. This makes it all the more impactful when everything comes crashing down in 1975, after Bundy is arrested in Utah (where he'd been studying the law) and the horrific truth about him gradually comes to light.
In fairness, Extremely Wicked doesn't immediately lose its way from that point. Indeed, some of the most compelling scenes in the film unfold in the aftermath of Bundy's first arrest, as he insidiously, but effectively gaslights Elizabeth into believing that he's being set up to take the fall for someone else's crime. This is also where Efron shines, as the actor portrays the infamous serial killer as a man with charisma and grace to spare, but an undercurrent of darkness that's barely visible unless you're specifically looking for it, as audiences are. And for the large part (save for one notable exception), the movie refrains from going overboard in foreshadowing Bundy as a monster hiding in plain sight behind a gentlemanly exterior.
From there, Michael Werwie's script increasingly shifts it attention away from Elizabeth's story and onto Bundy's subsequent actions, beginning with his first escape from jail in Colorado (after he's charged with committing additional murders in-state). By the time Extremely Wicked's second half gets underway, the film has largely abandoned Elizabeth's point of view in favor of scenes that either recreate famous televised moments in the media coverage of Bundy's case or simply feature real-life historical footage documenting his subsequent murder spree and arrest in Florida. And while the movie checks back in with Elizabeth every so often and eventually comes back to her fully in the end, her own experiences (like her descent into alcoholism, as she struggles to accept the truth about Bundy) almost feel like an afterthought to the courtroom drama in the third act, as Bundy's final trial unfolds. In doing so, Extremely Wicked sacrifices its earlier attempt to offer new insight into Bundy, in favor of being a serviceable, but middling cinematic memoir.
Berlinger, for his part, is otherwise sturdy when it comes to his direction. The filmmaker has become a specialist in documentary storytelling in the nearly two decades since his helmed the infamous sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (a critical disaster, back in the day), and he does a commendable job of combining documentarian techniques with more stylized moviemaking in Extremely Wicked. He's further able to draw out authentic performances from his cast - which, in addition to Efron and Collins, includes Kaya Scodelario as Carole Ann Boone (a woman from Bundy's past who becomes obsessed with him as his crimes come to light), and character actors like Jim Parsons, John Malkovich, Haley Joel Osment, and Angela Sarafyan as the important players in either Bundy's Florida trial or Elizabeth's personal life. As a whole, though, there's nothing particularly exceptional about the movie, as far as its sense of craftsmanship is concerned.
Thankfully, at the end of the day, Extremely Wicked avoids feeling like an exploitive portrayal of Ted Bundy, and even has some success when it comes to demonstrating how the mass murder managed to fool those closest to him for so many years. But at the same time, it's guilty of getting caught up in the sensationalized aspects of Bundy's story, at the expense of a more thought-provoking and subtle character study of the serial killer, as Elizabeth and those around him (victims and would-be victims alike) knew him. Of course, since it's available on Netflix already, those who're interested in the film may still want to give it a look on the streamer, at some point. Failing that, you can always just watch Berlinger's other Netflix Ted Bundy project instead.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is streaming on Netflix. It is 108 minutes long and is rated R for disturbing/violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language.
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- Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (2019) release date: May 03, 2019