By: Steve Pulaski
Joe Berlinger's dramatization of Ted Bundy's life and trial is extremely well-decorated, shockingly entertaining, and visceral in its attempt to cogently cover a lot of bases in under two hours. Released to Netflix, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile follows Berlinger's four-episode miniseries, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which too debuted on the streaming platform at the start of the year. In regards to the highly anticipated crime-drama, however, it's entertainment over excellence; something that has value but questionable staying power and intentions.
Berlinger's background is in documentaries, particularly ones revolving around high-profile murderers and murder cases. Working with the late filmmaker Bruce Sinofsky, the two made the Paradise Lost trilogy, which could debatably be cited as among some of the important documentary films of the last 50 years, as they focused on the West Memphis Three and had a hand in exonerating three men for the vicious murders of three young boys. Given his background, Berlinger unsurprisingly brings a lot of detail and gravitas to Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, and his project (working with writer Michael Werwie) is elevated by a surplus of talent. It's captivating enough to draw you in, but not necessarily substantial enough to make one have any revelations about Ted Bundy. If anything, its heavy emphasis on his charisma gives off unsettling sympathetic vibes to someone who will live up to the title of his biopic like few others this year.
In the opening minutes, we see how Ted (Zac Efron) meets Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins, Rules Don't Apply), who would become his long-suffering girlfriend, at a college-bar in Seattle in 1969. Ted wins over not only Liz but her young daughter Molly, and the two jump head-first into a relationship, mainly because of Ted's persistent, unwavering charm. Things get hazy when Ted gets arrested in connection to a kidnapping. While Liz sees the suspect's sketch looking curiously similar to her boyfriend's, she can't jump to such a conclusion. Not, Ted, no way; especially when he repeatedly tells her that the police are looking for a scapegoat and a media-show. During the trial, Ted sees a security officer distracted long enough to make his escape through a third-story window. He disappears into the mountains for a brief time, and finds himself near another scene where a heinous crime takes place.
The film's first hour appears to be on fast-forward, as Ted and Liz's relationship is barely given time to breathe before he becomes wrapped up in the aforementioned kidnapping case. This is the consequence of trying to condense so much into so little time, but Berlinger and Werwie impressively make it work. What feels sacrificed is exactly that — backstory, and the attention-to-detail in the legal proceedings, costumes, and overall mannerisms of characters both primary and secondary all feel precise. Zac Efron is unnervingly convincing as Bundy, doubling down on the clean-cut, pretty-boy image he has owned since he was singing centerstage in certain Disney-branded, high school productions. He was born to play a role filled with nuance and suave manipulation, and it's only further confirmed when the credits show real-life footage and how eerily similar Efron's cadence is to the monster who murdered 30 women and probably many more. As good as Lily Collins is in spurts, you wish her character was more than a distraught alcoholic, swallowed by guilt and fear — a role that becomes solidified when she shacks up with a coworker (Haley Joel Osment) long after Ted becomes infatuated with an old friend (Kaya Scodelario), whom he manipulates while in prison. Also incredibly effective in the relatively small moments he makes magnetic is John Malkovich as the Judge Edward Cowart, who delivers the presiding judge's famous, endearing monologue in a boldly memorable way. With all its snark and toothy dialog deliver, Malkovich's minor role ranks up there with Alec Baldwin's in Glengarry Glen Ross as most impacting "small" performances I've seen.
Perhaps it's because he felt he covered enough in his corresponding miniseries, but Berlinger's refusal to depict Bundy's crimes in detail is an admirable testament of restraint. Him and Werwie are clearly more transfixed with the charisma of an unbelievably bright law student, who not only found the wrong track but caught an entirely different train on his way to becoming a lawyer. Yet some of these strings of fascination are left untied by the time the credits roll, as Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vilechanges its focus a few too many times to be as definitive as it could've been. At times, it appears to want to softly exonerate or cast a shadow of doubt on Bundy's guilt, further evident by its treatment of Bundy's escapes from custody as Catch Me if You Can-style chase-downs. It negates the opportunity to get to the gritty details of its characters; we see Bundy as a handsome manipulator and little more and Kloepfer rendered helpless when her small microcosm of home and security is invaded by way of measured gaslighting.
I reiterate that Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile is terrific entertainment, exactly the kind of thing you'd put on Netflix while winding down after a long day only to stay up an extra hour or two scouring Wikipedia and Reddit to fill in the blanks. Berlinger is a director I'd absolutely like to see take on more dramas down the line as much as I'd love to see Efron continue this medium-sized "McConaissance" he's been on since We are Your Friends. Ted Bundy is one of the most fascinating killers in American lore, and for that, he deserved a much more decisive film.