America is obsessed with true crime. I don’t know why, but it’s real. Anyone who disagrees would have a difficult time forming a case against it. Making a Murderer, Serial, Zodiac—it’s insanely popular across all media. Documentarian Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile joins eventual release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as 2019’s major true crime exposes (along with Berlinger’s concurrently released documentary, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes). It’s about one of America’s favorite serial killers, Ted Bundy, played by one of America’s favorite hunks, Zac Efron.
The film is an adaptation of longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer’s memoir, The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy. She wrote the book under pseudonym Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), which is also what the film decided to call her. I’m going to give it to you straight up like someone did for me. Don’t go in expecting grisly murder scenes, rapes, decapitations, and accompanying gore. This isn’t a gross-out flick. It’s not interested in being a ghastly movie. This is a different brand of true crime. It’s made for the squeamish, the curious-but-easily-triggered, the people that true crime typically repels regardless of how interested they might be.
We see almost everything from Kendall’s perspective, which is why we don’t see the murders take place. They meet at a bar, quickly fall in love, move in together, and live a very typical, mundane, but happy life together with Kendall’s infant daughter. The film spans nearly a decade where all we see of Bundy is sincere kindness, love, and selflessness for Kendall and her daughter. The movie gives us a happily ever after ending five minutes in. Eventually, Bundy is in law school in Utah, then in and out of holding cells, then prison, and for the last long 30 minutes, in the courtroom, where it becomes The Efron Show.
But even in all of that, we don’t see Bundy in serial killer mode. The film gives us hints of what’s scrolling through his mind with visual clues, like the sensual placement of his hand around Liz’s throat during a sex scene, or the way he kisses her forehead so as to give the impression of dominance over sweetness, or his generally fidgety yet somehow composed demeanor, or the overlaid news of accusations during a montage of Bundy being a delightful family man. Frankly, it’s hard to see Bundy’s gentleness and compassion as anything other than creepy, sociopathic, and tricky because we know what will come of it from the beginning.
We all know we’re watching a Ted Bundy movie. We all know how things turn out. Reports of missing, murdered, and raped women start popping up in all of the places Bundy happens to have visited. Kendall gets weary, but never too much so to truly doubt her trust in him. When she finally starts to suspect him, she becomes more emotionally distant while he is physically distant. In that gap, the film works other parties into play in their separated lives as trails point more obviously to Bundy.
During the lengthiest of prison stints, Kendall starts dating a co-worker named Jerry (Haley Joel Osment). Bundy reluctantly gives up on calling Kendall after she stops answering him, and latches on to another poor sucker named Carole Anne Boone (Kaya Scodelario). Jim Parsons and John Malkovich take the screen as Florida Prosecutor Larry Sims and Judge Edward D. Cowart (casting moves that garnered literal laughter throughout the theatre upon both of their late appearances in the film—similar to when John Krasinski bursts onto the scene as a lawyer we’re supposed to take seriously in Detroit).
Efron is really good as Bundy, but because we only ever see nice, charismatic, energetic Bundy, his performance is static. What you see 20 minutes in is what you get for the rest of the film. It’s not so much Efron’s fault as it is the screenplay’s, which only gave him so much to work with. On the contrary, Collins is all over the place, a constant flux of confidence and lack thereof. Her performance is the clear standout of the film. She goes from sublime to depressed to hopeful to alcoholic to content to guilt-ridden to proud.
If it wasn’t for Collins and the unique perspective of the movie, it wouldn’t be worth noting at all. Lines like, “My game is homicide…catch ya later,” delivered by a homicide detective, and cloyingly overt references like a child-drawn picture of a shark eating a minnow are shallow and forgettable. The music is good, but so distracting. The use of pop hits from the 70s and 80s is a good idea in theory, but it has disastrous timing in the final product. The film could easily lose 20 minutes of Bundy smiling nervously into the screen, or Kendall chain-smoking in fits of anxiety. The pace as a whole is tedious.
I heard rumor that the film originally left out Bundy’s name until the very end, essentially playing the film like a long-con that allows viewers to fall in love with a fictional, charming house husband who is being wrongfully accused of heinous crimes, only to shock audiences into realizing they’d been sympathizing with Ted Bundy of all people, to reveal that that was what Bundy was actually like. That’s why he was so successful in sickness. Alas, the movie doesn’t do that (I wish it did).
Yet, there’s something to witnessing the human potential for evil, if we assume evil as the privation of good. It’s gritty, disturbing, possibly triggering, and dark, but we keep coming back for more in the true crime genre, and Extremely Wicked will draw people in on that premise, along with it gorgeous 70s set design and costume work. Not to mention, it takes a page out of Spotlight’s book by rolling the names of his victims across the screen at the end, a tactic that is bound to neatly and effectively wrap audiences in tears. Ultimately, it’s an okay watch, but more for the Collins than the Efron.