Early on in the new Netflix film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, there’s a scene in which Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) and her sister, Joanna (Angela Sarafyan) go to a bar. Through some rather heavy-handed dialogue, we learn that Liz has just broken up with her boyfriend, that she has next to zero self-confidence, and that she’s a single mother. She doesn’t think that there’s a man anywhere who would be interested in her. Joanna responds by pointing out that there’s one man who appears to be very interested. In fact, he hasn’t taken his eyes off of Liz since they entered the bar.
That man’s name is Ted (Zac Efron) and, at first, he seems like he’s too good to be true. He’s charming. He’s a law student. He appears to love spending time with Liz’s daughter. He looks like Zac Efron. Perfect, right?
Of course, we know something that Liz doesn’t. We know that Ted is Ted Bundy and that, eventually, he’s going to become one of America’s notorious serial killers, a symbol of evil so potent that, more than 30 years after he was executed by the state of Florida, he continues to get movies made about him.
Because we know who and what Ted is, we spend the first fourth of the movie cringing at everything that makes Liz happy. For instance, Liz is shocked to discover that Ted apparently loves her daughter but we’re just like, “Oh my God, that’s Ted Bundy! GET YOUR DAUGHTER AWAY FROM TED BUNDY!” Liz thinks it’s romantic when Ted makes breakfast for her but we’re just staring at the big kitchen knife in his hand. When Liz and Ted make love, only we notice the blank look on Ted’s face as he looks down at Liz and we find ourselves wondering what’s happening in his mind.
The film is told largely through Liz’s eyes and, with one exception, we never see Bundy actually committing any of his crimes. (That’s a good thing, by the way. We already know who Ted Bundy was and what he did. There’s no need to sensationalize the very real pain that he caused.) Like Liz, we find out about Bundy’s crimes through news reports and arrest records. For instance, when Bundy is arrested for attempted kidnapping in Utah, Liz doesn’t find out about it until a story appears in the local Seattle newspaper. When Liz demands to know why he didn’t tell her what was happening, Bundy gives her a bullshit story about how he’s being framed and how his lawyer is going to get the case thrown out. We know that Ted’s lying but Liz believes him because …. what else is she going to do? Is she going to believe that this perfect man who seems to love both her and her daughter is actually a sociopathic monster?
The film follows Bundy from one trial to another, as he’s charged with crimes across country. It shows how this superficially charming law student became something of a media celebrity. (When a reporter asks him if he’s guilty, Bundy grins and asks if the reporter is referring to a comic book that he stole when he was in the fifth grade.) Bundy escapes. Bundy is arrested. Bundy escapes again. Bundy eventually ends up being tried in Florida, where he revels in the attention. When Liz loses faith in him, Bundy replaces her with an unstable woman named Carole Ann (Kayla Scodelario). However, even while Carole Ann is dutifully delivering statements from Bundy to the press, Bundy is still calling Liz and begging her to believe that he’s innocent and he’ll soon be freed from prison.
Why is it so important to Bundy that Liz believe in him? Is he just entertaining himself by manipulating her or, in his relationship with her, does he see the type of normalcy that he desires but knows he’s incapable of ever achieving? Towards the end of the film, Liz comes close to asking Bundy if he was planning on killing her the first night that they met. She doesn’t and it’s doubtful that Bundy would have given an honest answer but it’s still a question that hangs over every minute of this film (as does Liz’s physical resemblance to the majority of Bundy’s victims).
Though the film may be told from Liz’s point of view, she’s often comes across as just being a meek bystander, watching as the darkness of Ted Bundy envelops her world. The film itself seems to be far more interested in Ted Bundy and his twisted celebrity. Zac Efron plays Bundy as someone who knows how to be charming and who is good enough at imitating human emotions that he’s managed to keep the world from noticing that he’s essentially hollow on the inside. Bundy has gotten so used to acting out a role that, even when he’s on trial for his life, he can’t resist the temptation to turn the courtroom into his own stage. He demands to defend himself and, though he initially proves himself to be a good lawyer, his demands and his questions become progressively more flamboyant and self-destructive. It’s as if he’s gotten so caught up in playing his role that he’s incapable of recognizing the reality of his situation. He performs for the jury, the judge, and the television audience, treating the whole thing as if he’s just a character in a movie. It’s only when he has no choice but to accept that he’s been caught and he’s never going to escape that Bundy finally shows some human emotion. He cries but his tears are only for himself. It’s a chilling performance and Zac Efron deserves every bit of praise that he’s received.
Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t really tell us anything that we didn’t already know. Director Joe Berlinger is best-known as a documentarian and he talks a “just the facts” approach to the story. We don’t really get any insight into how a monster like Ted Bundy could come to exist. Outside of Efron’s revelatory performance, there’s not much here that couldn’t be found in any of the other films that have been made about Ted Bundy.
(Interestingly enough, as I watched the film, it occurred to me that Ted Bundy was a monster who could have only thrived in a pre-Internet age. For all the books and movies that portray him as being some sort of cunning genius, Bundy actually wasn’t that smart. He approached two of early his victims in a public place and introduce himself as being “Ted,” usually within earshot of a handful of witnesses. He was so brazen that the police even ended up with a sketch that pretty much looked exactly like him. In all probability, the only way that Ted Bundy avoided getting arrested in Seattle was that he moved to Utah, where his crimes were unknown and the sketch wasn’t readily available. Today, of course, that sketch and Ted’s name would be on Twitter and Facebook as soon as they were released by the police. My friend Holly would probably retweet the sketch and say, “Do your thing, twitter!” He would have been identified and arrested in just a matter of time. Instead, Bundy committed his crimes at a time when news traveled slower and law enforcement agencies were not in constant communication with each other.)
The good news is that Extremely Wicked is not, as some feared, a glorification of Ted Bundy. He’s a monster throughout the entire film. Zac Efron proves himself to be a far better actor than anyone’s ever really given him credit for being. It’s a flawed film but, at the very least, it’s also a disturbing reminder that sometimes, darkness hides behind the greatest charm.