Every girl loves a bad boy, and so too, apparently, does Hollywood. Recent months have seen an uptick in true crime films and series, from “My Friend Dahmer,” starring Ross Lynch, to the latest “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” directed by Joe Berlinger. Meanwhile, fictional shows in the crime genre have sexed up their serial killer protagonists, from Penn Badgley in “You” to Freddie Highmore in “Bates Motel,” though perhaps a slightly different grain of material. Hollywood execs have clearly taken stock of the growing fascination for lurid tales of real-life killers and their gruesome stories of being brought to justice — and they’ve responded in turn by feeding the appetite, with a veritable onslaught of new entries into genre.
There’s a real conversation to be had about the act of representing true crime on screen, particularly its traumatic consequences for the victims’ families who have to relive loved ones’ deaths, as Carolyn Murnick points out in her personal essay for The Cut. Consider, too, the consequences for people like Bundy’s longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer, whose name has been newly reintroduced into the public spotlight. But aside from those valid issues, watching “Extremely Wicked” raised another, less-discussed matter.
What’s most criminal about “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” is not its missing Oxford comma, but instead the casting of its lead actor, Zac Efron, of “High School Musical” fame. Because even when “Extremely Wicked” is criticizing Bundy’s awfulness, it’s also inadvertently touting his charisma. Maybe casting broad-shouldered, blue-eyed Efron was a sly, ironic wink at his history of playing the romantic lead, but the film’s irony is understated to the point of being nonexistent. Bundy is a serial killer, but Efron is used to batting his eyes and offering half-baked truisms with the ebullience and conviction of a modern-day Darcy. “I’m more popular than Disney World,” Efron’s Bundy proclaims in the film.
It’s true that charisma was one of Bundy’s great skills (it’s also one of Efron’s). But for Bundy, it was more than a skill — it was a deadly weapon of psychological manipulation. Bundy’s persistence is framed in the film as romantic, heroic perseverance for a woman of his affections, not the real emotional manipulation that misled women to their eventual deaths. His courtroom savvy only heightens his allure. “I guess I love him,” one teenage girl says, as if her admiration is beyond even her comprehension.
Real-life footage of Bundy shows a deranged killer with a manic glint in his eyes, and that may have been the intent for “Extremely Wicked.” But rarely is the veil lifted from our eyes — and when it is, it’s in the form of a brief coda, which does little to erase the two hours that Efron has spent dutifully charming the pants off the viewers. When the film elides the murders, it leaves them out of the record and de-legitimizes the very real violence against women that Bundy consciously perpetuated.
Naturally, the production team has excused away claims of romanticization by claiming they’ve focalized the film through Liz, played by Lily Collins. Yet what matters is not intent, but effect — and in practice, this narration does little to counteract the film’s willingness to sympathize with Bundy and pity Liz. Berlinger shows Bundy impressing the courtroom with his pre-law smarts while Liz listlessly drinks at home or stares vacantly at her work phone. In upholding such conventional gender portrayals, the film demonstrates that the female perspective is capricious, easily susceptible to emotion, and in denial. “When I feel his love, I feel like I’m on top of the world,” Liz says helplessly. Even when the premise aligns us with the women, the execution says she’s unreliable and therefore can’t be trusted.
What does it mean for a film to represent serial killers as sympathetic, attractive young men? For a rising tide of young actors, like Ross Lynch and Zac Efron, it means a new, challenging role with its own set of crooked teeth. And perhaps studios feel more comfortable with such well-known leads, whose other, more palatable Disney Channel roles will counterbalance the on-screen depravity of a bloodthirsty killer.
But it also means that serial killers are haloed with a newfound glamour, even sex appeal. After all, attractiveness is so often misconstrued as trustworthiness. Imagine the lurid Halloween costumes, the ardent fanaticism of a new crop of Instagram fan accounts. Imagine the ensuing revision, even if accidental, of the story of an immoral man as merely misunderstood, good at heart. The consequences of misrepresentation on-screen are tangible and real. “This trial will be televised, so you can judge for yourself,” the prosecuting attorney (Jim Parsons) announces in the film. If only that were true.
—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolinetsai3.