Movies that dramatize the events of real crimes are always forced to walk a narrow tight-rope. They have to be careful not to gratuitously show too much of the real violence and potentially glorify real murders while also not focusing too much on the wrong aspects and showing too little of the crimes and accidentally make the real murderer too sympathetic/unfrightening. It’s a tight-rope that Netflix’s newest film, Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile, is forced to walk – and it doesn’t do a great job. It’s admirable at how little Ted Bundy’s (Zac Efron) real violence is shown, but it also does a poor job at really showing how terrible he was, instead choosing to ostensibly focus on his relationship with Liz Kendall (Lily Collins). However, it doesn’t do a particularly good job at establishing their relationship and actually developing either of them as characters within the narrative of a film. Instead of feeling like an actual movie, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile feels more like a Wikipedia article covering Bundy’s crimes and his various relationships. (Spoilers for the film follow!)
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (written by Michael Werwie and directed by Joe Berlinger)
Single mother Liz (Lily Collins) thinks she’s found the man of her dreams in Ted (Zac Efron). But their seemingly perfect life is turned upside down when Ted is arrested on suspected kidnapping charges, then linked to murders in multiple states. Adamant that he’s being framed, the former law student theatrically defends himself in America’s first nationally televised trial while Liz struggles to come to terms with the truth. Adapted from the nonfiction memoir by Elizabeth Kendall, EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE recounts how she was manipulated for years by a seemingly adoring boyfriend, yet future death row inmate, Ted Bundy. Directed and produced by Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning Joe Berlinger.
I understand that Michael Werwie (screenwriter) and Joe Berlinger (director) had to try to find a way to accurately depict these years of Ted Bundy’s life without overindulging in his horrific actions nor making light of them and presenting Bundy in too sympathetic a light, but I don’t know if this approach makes for a terribly interesting film. The movie is based on Kendall’s book, The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, and uses Kendall’s relationship with Bundy as the emotional core of the film. This would have been a really interesting angle for a film about Ted Bundy to take – how did Bundy’s crimes affect the woman who loved him? The problem is that the movie never actually bothered to explore that. Kendall and Bundy’s relationship is the emotional core of the film but the film never actually establishes that relationship. They meet at the beginning of the film and ten minutes later, Bundy has been arrested for the first time. Since no time is spent showing why either of them might have liked each other, the subsequent emotional beats that the film hits don’t land as well as they should.
A huge chunk of the film is devoted to Bundy’s Florida trial – the first trial that was nationally broadcast on television. It’s here where you really start to understand that this film is more of a Wikipedia article than a real film about Bundy and Kendall. The hour, or so, leading up to this trial is just like reading the Ted Bundy Wikipedia article – we’re quickly introduced to Kendall and Bundy, Bundy gets arrested and convicted in Utah, gets transferred to Colorado where he’s tried for some other murders, escapes from that trial, is captured again, then escapes from prison to Florida where he commits a series of murders at the Chi Omega house in Florida and is subsequently arrested for that. The final forty minutes, or so, are devoted solely to the Florida trial and its immediate aftermath, followed by a time jump to the day before Bundy’s execution where he and Kendall speak for the final time. During those scenes, we get very short glimpses of Kendall struggling to deal with all that is happening, turning to alcohol and eventually falling in love with one of her coworkers, played by a charming Hayley Joel Osment. But, unfortunately, the vast amount of attention is given to Bundy’s trial. It’s a collection of fun scenes, featuring Jim Parsons as the prosecutor and John Malkovich as the judge, but it feels like more attention gets paid to that than to Bundy and Kendall’s relationship – which, again, is supposed to be the center of the film. And, again, since the film never really spent any time establishing Kendall and Bundy’s relationship, Kendall’s reactions to Bundy’s trial don’t feel narratively earned.
That’s not to say that Efron and Collins don’t do a superb job as Bundy and Kendall – because they absolutely do. Efron expertly portrays Bundy as a man who presents a certain version of himself to the world while attempting – and not always succeeding – to hide his real self just out of view. Efron plays Bundy with this underlying sense of anger and entitlement – traits that, in hindsight, are easily noticed when looking at footage of Bundy. Collins, on the other hand, plays Kendall’s understandable sadness and “guilt” remarkably. While the script never really shows us why Kendall loves and trusts Bundy so much, Collins is able to sell us on her feelings anyway. We can see that she truly cares for Bundy and that she does truly feel partially responsible for everything – at least until she realizes that he has actually committed all of these horrifying acts. Efron and Collins’ performances are what ultimately save this film, as do the performances from the rest of the supporting cast. These actors all bring their A-Games to material that doesn’t really give them a whole lot to work with.
At the end of the day, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is a rather disappointing film. It was a really interesting idea to present the story of Ted Bundy and his crimes through the lens of his longtime girlfriend, Liz Kendall – it’s just unfortunate that the script of this film doesn’t do that premise any justice. Without firmly establishing their relationship and why they feel the way they do for each other, it’s hard to be emotionally invested in the subsequent emotional beats that the film tries to hit. There’s a moment where Liz reveals that she is the one who initially gave Ted’s name to the authorities – but the film had been telegraphing that she’d done that since he had first been arrested so it lands flat as a fresh piece of paper. As do many of the emotional beats. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is a film that not only feels like a Wikipedia article but also expects the viewers to have watched Berlinger’s previously released miniseries about Ted Bundy in order to actually have a real sense at how horrific Bundy’s crimes were. But without including any of that horror in the film until the very last scene, the movie doesn’t do a great job at really establishing how horrible Bundy is – it just expects us to know that. Which, I suppose, is fair given how notorious Bundy and his crimes were. But, from a narrative point of view, it’s bad writing and a perfect example of how weak the script is. The actors – especially Lily Collins and Zac Efron – all do their best and their performances almost save this movie from being totally forgettable but, unfortunately, the weak script outweighs their impressive performances.
2.5 out of 5 wands.