It would be easy to sensationalize the horrors committed by Ted Bundy, the serial killer who murdered at least 30 women in the 1970s. But director Joe Berlinger takes a different approach with “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.” There’s no bloodshed or crime shown. There’s rarely violence. Instead, Berlinger presents Bundy through the eyes of former girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer — referred to in the film by her literary pseudonym, Elizabeth Kendall — a single mother he loved all the while moonlighting as a psychopath. It’s an ambitious attempt, but even with this new perspective, the film only reiterates a well-known story and fails to add anything new.
The relationship between Bundy (Zac Efron) and Kendall (Lily Collins) opens and frames the film. The two meet at a college bar, where she instantly catches his eye. They dance, they kiss, and he drives her home. Bundy displays many signs of a decent guy: He is not dissuaded when he discovers that Kendall has a child, he does not pressure her to do anything, and she wakes up to him making breakfast. But of course, dramatic irony taints this romantic sequence with eeriness. Berlinger juxtaposes the finale, when Kendall faces Bundy in prison in order to absolve herself of guilt, with scenes from their early relationship. With little context of their lives before they first meet, the film catapults into the action. Bundy is first arrested in Utah in 1975 after he runs two stop signs; the officer searches his car to find trash bags, a flashlight, gloves, rope, and a crowbar. Bundy matches the descriptions of the suspect of a nearby crime, and he is charged with kidnapping and attempted assault. After the police match his car and face with the profile of the suspect for several brutal murders thereafter, Bundy faces the Dade County Circuit Court in Florida. He persistently maintains his innocence, as does Kendall, who despondently watches the events unfold on her television even after she has ended their relationship, and later Carole Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario), an old colleague who he manipulates to be his spokesperson to the media.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” avoids further sensationalizing the horrors Bundy committed by opting to not show them at all, instead relaying them with the original photographs and newscasters who reported the gruesome details, and excluding some facts altogether. There is ultimately no mention of his necrophilia — he confessed in the 1980s that he often revisited the bodies of the women he murdered — or of his attempt to kill Kendall. The film does not show Bundy committing any of the crimes mentioned, as if to ask viewers to suspend their belief and think that just maybe, he is innocent, just as the many women who followed and witnessed his case believed. This tell-don’t-show methodology, however, makes for a bland and superficial film that compartmentalizes Bundy’s evil as independent from his “normal,” public self. It doesn’t lend itself to further understanding of Bundy and his motivations, nor does it pique new interest. The most provocative scenes of the film are just reenactments: when Bundy faces the press for the first time, his first interviews, and the climactic court case itself, which was the first nationally televised trial in history. This calls into question the film’s intent: Why retell and recreate events that have largely already been caught on camera? If Berlinger hoped to share Kendall’s perspective, he only gives Collins fleeting moments to shine, which she does when given the screen time. If Berlinger wanted to humanize Bundy, or otherwise explain his madness, his series “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” already did so with more success.
Many have also criticized Berlinger’s decision to cast Efron as Bundy, as it made Bundy a sort of sex symbol by association. Berlinger, however, said Bundy’s appeal was key to the “psychological power he had over others.” While Efron does possess this dangerous charm, he lacks the nervous energy that distinguished Bundy on tape: his darting eyes that refused to maintain eye contact, his manic laugh, his nervous shaking. Without these character traits, Efron’s Bundy is far more handsome and therefore easier to empathize with than Bundy himself, so his portrayal actually risks romanticizing the late serial killer. Berlinger makes a criminal oversight in neglecting to show the delusion that caused Bundy to sabotage his own trial and become the head of his own defense; instead, Efron takes the opportunity to shine as a charismatic would-be lawyer.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” — borrowing the words of Florida Judge Edward D. Cowart (John Malkovich) who sentenced Bundy to the electric chair — should have been shocking and vile, and while any viewer can determine as much based on Bundy’s actions, the film itself does not provoke that disgust. Gory scenes of murder and rape are not necessary, but a simple playback of newsreels and interviews are not enough to stir the viewer’s conscience. Somehow, Berlinger has managed to downplay a story of horrendous crime, and to even romanticize a serial killer in the process.
—Staff writer Kaylee S. Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kayleeskim.