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Netflix’s Ted Bundy biopic, the obnoxiously titled “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ is little more than your standard star vehicle. This time it is Disney alum Zac Efron, looking to finally shed his High School Musical image and transition from adult comedies into more serious fanfare, with his performance as the infamous serial killer.
Based on the memoir of Ted’s former girlfriend Elisabeth Kendal, this horrific real-life story, while enjoyable, ends up playing more conventionally than it should in the hands of director Joe Berlinger.
The film is surprisingly light on the violence and horror, choosing a less is more approach regarding Bundy’s atrocities. And while this lets our own imagination fill the all-too-horrific gaps in this well-known tale, it also often undercuts the savagery of the serial killer. In a way, this is probably for the best. Bundy is shown in the film, the way he appears to the public: handsome, quick-witted, and almost too alluring for his own good.
His uglier grittier side was never entirely on display in the courtrooms and on TV, so the film does allow us to put ourselves in the shoes of the spectators at that time. Unfortunately, this also means that we don’t get the full idea of just how “wicked, shockingly evil and vile” Bundy is.
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The film’s faux pas isn’t that it doesn’t allow us to understand his motives, because well, there is no way that would be possible, no, the film’s insistence on keeping us at arm’s length at all times means that we are unable to penetrate his brain in any way and get the idea of the kind of man Ted Bundy is when he isn’t putting up a show for his girlfriend or his audience.
This fatal misstep makes the entire venture quite foolhardy, after all, what’s the use of focusing on one of the most notorious serial killers of all time if we aren’t even given a chance to know who he really is. To the film’s credit, the movie does make it abundantly clear that our eyes and ears into Bundy’s character is through his girlfriend Liz Kendal, but the film often leaves her behind as it digs into the trial and public processions.
This lazy approach is particularly troublesome when Bundy’s wife, Carole Ann (Kaya Scodelario from The Maze Runner) is introduced in the third act almost as an afterthought. Had the film been more balanced and the screenplay more refined, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, could have been a fantastic exploration of Bundy’s relationship with two of his closest female paramours.
Sadly, the lack of focus results in an awkward tug of war between who is actually steering the film, Bundy or Liz. Lily Collins who plays the part of Liz Kendal, is to-to-toe with Efron in the film, though unlike her male counterpart, her character isn’t written nearly as well or as interesting to get by on sheer charm. At times it feels like the filmmakers are unsure whether to make Kendal the naive, hapless victim or Bundy as the mastermind who successfully fooled his girlfriend for so long.
But at least both performers ensure that we are invested in this traumatizing tale. John Malkovich also gets a chance to make a small appearance, exuding all the command he should bring to his role as the judge presiding Bundy’s final murder trial, even though his role is a cameo at best. Efron is a delight, not only sounding like Bundy but also looking the part.
He shifts from being the indignant victim to a seductive people’s person in a heartbeat, and one can only imagine how effective his psychopathic turn would have been had the film shown a little less restraint. Nonetheless, the film’s decision to leave him as an enigmatic figure does not entirely take away from his character, and the movie is at the end of the day quite watchable.
Still, one wishes that Berlinger had been a bit more interested in penetrating the psyche of Bundy. And although the film is fast-paced and gripping, it does leave us waiting for this notorious killer to be dissected one day by a more seasoned director. Because while the details surrounding Bundy’s mass murder spree are indeed ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,’ this Netflix original is anything but.