Film Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (dir by Joe Berlinger)


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.

 

 

Here’s The Trailer for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile!


When I heard that there was a trailer out for the Ted Bundy biopic, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, this was not what I was initially expecting to see:

Now, if you go over to YouTube and read the comments under this trailer, you’ll see that there are a lot of people who are upset because they feel that the trailer portrays notorious serial killer Ted Bundy as being some sort of hero.  While I can understand the concern, I think those people are missing the point.

Yes, the trailer portrays Bundy as being a smooth-talking sociopath who was apparently having the time of his life while killing women, escaping from jails, and fleeing the police.  That’s largely because that’s the way that Bundy, in his interactions with others, tried to present himself.  That doesn’t mean that the film itself is meant to excuse or make light of Bundy’s crimes.  Here’s a statement from MW Film Studios, which was left underneath the film’s trailer:

Seems like a lot of people are missing the point. The reason why the trailer seems to painting him as some charismatic good guy is precisely because Ted Bundy was a very manipulative person who on the surface, one could believe was really that kind of person, but underneath that was someone cold and calculating. Like the person, the trailer is purposely misleading.

Given the fact that this film was directed by Joe Berlinger and any biopic of Ted Bundy would seem to be destined to end with him getting executed in Florida, I am more than willing to give this film the benefit of the doubt.  Zac Efron’s appealing but somewhat blank prettiness would seem to make him the ideal pick for the role of Bundy.  At the very least, I’ll wait for the initial reviews from Sundance before jumping to any conclusions about whether the film is properly anti-Bundy.

(Incidentally, Joe Berlinger not only directed this film but also Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which is currently streaming on Netflix.  Judging from the docu-series, I doubt Berlinger’s film is going to present Bundy as being anything other than evil and manipulative.)

Film Review: Whitey: The United States of America vs. James J. Bulger (dir by Joe Berlinger)


When I was younger, my family used to frequently visit relatives in Arkansas.  (Except, of course, when we were actually living in Arkansas but that’s another story…)  Any time that we were driving to Arkansas for a visit, we would always stop at this little park in Oklahoma.  We’d eat lunch and then I’d run into the rest stop and I’d look at this big aquarium that was full of gold fish.  And then after looking at the aquarium, I’d run over to the corner where they had all of the latest wanted posters and I’d look at who the FBI was searching for that year.

What always fascinated me was that, while there were always new faces posted in that corner, there were also posters that stayed up there for years.  And, in my own weird little way, seeing those posters became something of a ritual that I always looked forward to.  What fascinated me was reading about how each of these dangerous fugitives could be identified.  One guy, for instance, was described as being a fancy dresser and a big tipper and, since I had heard horror stories about being a waitress from several of my relatives, I wondered how bad the guy could be if he was a big tipper.  I was always interested to see who was thought to be in Mexico and who may have escaped up to Canada and I’ll admit that there was a part of me that always wondered if maybe they could be in Oklahoma, eating at that very park!

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From the first time I saw James J. Bulger’s poster in the corner, it made an impression on me.  First off, there was his picture, which made him look like an assistant principal.  Then there was his long list of aliases.  (Even back then, I was obsessed with lists and names.)

And finally, there were all of his identifying details.

For instance, the poster told me that he was fluent in several languages.  The poster said that he had recently been sighted in Europe, which I often fantasized about visiting.  It said that he was traveling with his girlfriend and that both of them loved animals….

Loved animals!?

I loved animals!

And, of course, then I would notice that this cultured and multilingual animal lover was wanted for 19 counts of murder, drug trafficking, extortion, and a whole lot of other things.  The list of crimes told me that this James “Whitey” Bulger was not a good man but the identifying traits suggested something else.

(Another reason that Whitey made an impression on me is that he looked a lot less scary than Osama Bin Laden, who — the last few times we stopped at that rest stop — had invaded the corner…)

So, that was my first impression of Whitey Bulger.

My second impression came about a few years later when I read that the demonic gangster played by Jack Nicholson in The Departed was reportedly based on Bulger.  I’m not sure if the real life Bulger used to carry around someone else’s severed hand but still…

And finally, my third impression came from the documentary that I watched last night on Netflix, Whitey: The United States of America vs. James J. Bulger.  After spending 12 years in that corner, Bulger was eventually arrested in Florida and returned to his hometown of Boston, where he was put on trial for all of the crimes that had been listed at the top of that wanted poster.  Veteran documentarian Joe Berlinger was in Boston for the trial, interviewing Bulger’s defense attorneys, a guy who calmly talked about a number of murders that he committed with Bulger, and the relatives of several of Bulger’s victims.  Bulger himself even got a few words in, calling up his defense attorneys from jail and doing his best to present himself as being a gangster with a code of honor.

Indeed, from the start of the trial, Bulger’s main concern seems to be with convincing people that he had a code of honor.  He has no hesitation about admitting to being guilty of most of the charges against him.  What upsets him is that people are saying that he was a FBI informant and that’s why, for so long, he was able to avoid going to jail despite committing crimes in broad daylight.  Bulger’s argument is that the Boston FBI fabricated evidence of him being an informant in order to cover up the fact that he was paying all of them off.

(Bulger also suggests that he was given blanket immunity by a special prosecutor in return for saving the prosecutor’s life.)

It’s an interesting suggestion.  (Since the FBI refused to interviewed for the documentary, we only get Bulger’s side of the story.)  However, regardless of whether or not you believe Bulger’s claims, the documentary makes clear that — whether they were on his payroll or using him as an informant — the FBI essentially allowed Bulger to spend several years doing anything and killing anyone that he wanted.  By the end of the film, you can understand why the families of Bulger’s victims are often just as angry at law enforcement as they are at Bulger.

Whitey is a good documentary and it’s currently available on Netflix.  If you’re into true crime, like I am, you’ll enjoy it.  At the very least, I’m thankful that this documentary shined a little bit of light on that corner.

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