This review was originally published during 2019’s Sundance Film Festival. We are republishing the piece as the film hits theaters this weekend.
Why tell a story that’s already been told before? We see it so much, particularly in the midst of the recent true crime boom, that we barely think about that question beyond the first obvious answer: “Because it’s an interesting story.” But perspective is everything, and often taken for granted when a ripped-from-the-headlines adaptation is successful. The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story wasn’t a popular and critical hit because it ran through all the Wikipedia bullet points, but because of what it showed us that we couldn’t have seen before — Picasso’s “lie by which we know the truth,” or a truth, anyway.
Perspective is an issue that dogs Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, even more so than its ungainly title. The narrative feature from veteran documentarian Joe Berlinger seems as though it’s setting out to be the story of serial killer Ted Bundy told through the eyes of his girlfriend, Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins.) It’s a good premise, and an interesting idea to delve into the “charming sociopath” profile that Bundy exemplified through the eyes of the person who was perhaps most charmed. But Berlinger’s film gets sucked into the gravity of sensational events that are already a matter of public record, and spends so much time meticulously recreating them that the perspective is diluted. It isn’t long before the film seems to lose any perspective at all.
None of this is the fault of lead (and producer) Zac Efron, who disappears into Bundy’s glib persona as well as Zac Efron’s face can be said to disappear into anything. The natural gleam in Efron’s Tiger Beat eyes becomes something harder and more sinister the deeper into the case we get, a curtain drawn around a crime scene. But early in the film, when he meets single mother Liz for the first time at a Seattle college bar, he’s just the hot guy everyone would like to think was stealing a glance at them across the room. If we the audience didn’t know better, we’d be rooting for their meet cute.
Berlinger tracks that first night out with Ted and Liz, and the morning after, and then yadda-yaddas the next five years, during which time Bundy moves in with Liz and becomes a co-parent for her young daughter, and begins his homicidal career in earnest. We don’t see those killings — nor do we see any scenes of violence until the film’s final minutes — ostensibly because Liz didn’t witness them; that was not the Ted she knew. But muddying this considerably is the fact that film later acknowledges that Liz herself named Bundy to the police when a police sketch and description went out for the suspect in the 1974 Lake Sammamish kidnappings. If Liz suspected her live-in boyfriend that early on of a violent crime, why did she stay with him? What was that like? Extremely Wicked misses out on some of the most important beats of its supposed premise by skipping over this chapter entirely.
What it does instead is follow Ted during his early arrests, as the law starts to catch on to his string of crimes. On more than one occasion, we see Bundy in his later-infamous VW bug, glancing nervously in the mirror as a police car closes in on him. But we aren’t seeing this story from his perspective, so what is the friction of this scene? It’s as if Berlinger can’t resist turning those juicy moments into cinema, but he hasn’t built the right dramatic foundation for them to matter. During the film’s last act, when the action converges on the media circus of Bundy’s Florida trial, Liz is absent, save for cutaways of her smoking nervously while watching the trial on television with her new anti-Ted beau (Haley Joel Osment.) The trial is as entertaining as it must have been in real life, especially with John Malkovich presiding over it as judge, and Ted peackocking about as his own prosecutor. But I’m not sure that there’s any more insight in that scene than there would have been on television in 1979.
The film ends with archival footage of the real Bundy that rolls over the credits, in a move that’s becoming a nearly ubiquitous crutch for films based on true stories. In the case of Extremely Wicked, that coda runs for more than a few minutes, and contains many of the scenes we’ve just seen Berlinger and Efron reenact. What is the point of this — to prove that they did a good job, that they said the lines in the right cadence and that the outfits looked the same? If that’s the mark of a job well done, why not just make a documentary from that footage? Of course, Berlinger already has: Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes debuted on Netflix less than two days before Extremely Evil’s Sundance premiere. If the narrative film only exists to give us the unsettling sliminess of Efron as Bundy, it won’t be a total waste. But it’s not much of a movie, either.