‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ falls short of expectations

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Donning an orange prison jumpsuit and sitting behind a thick glass wall, Zac Efron opens “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” with a visitor in a recognizable jail cell, immediately proving himself to be the best actor to take on the role of the charming but evil Ted Bundy. His ex-girlfriend at the time, Elizabeth Kloepfer, played by Lily Collins, stares back through the glass as Bundy is seated in chains.

Joe Berlinger, director of “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” takes America’s obsession with one of the most twisted beings to ever live and makes him all the more interesting by effortlessly telling the crooked story of Bundy’s convictions, escapes and multi-state trials with a superior cast and unmatched clarity. The movie, although produced strongly and thoroughly in what it does cover, leaves gaps in the story of Ted Bundy and leaves the viewer wanting more, both in a good and bad way. 

In spite of the fact that it begins with a rocky start by switching from past to present, it picks up quickly and never stops until the credits roll. With a heavy focus on the legal events following Bundy’s attacks in six neighboring northwestern states and Florida, Berlinger transports us to the terrifying world that existed for young women in the 1970s. He committed sometimes two or three murders at once, took advantage of the victims’ bodies, disposed of the evidence that would have linked him to the scene and evaded police before and after his arrests. Efron portrays Bundy’s way of hiding behind a pretty face skillfully and with ease. 

Berlinger emphasizes Kloepfer’s role in the drama as it played out, including her spiral into a phase of heavy drinking and depression following a period of content domesticity with Bundy and her young daughter in her Seattle home before he was taken by the authorities. Certain details in the movie make you question the authenticity of the whole thing, but ultimately it remains a “based on a true story” biopic serving mostly to entertain. 

As Kloepfer faded into the background, realizing that Bundy was full of empty promises and false hope, ex-girlfriend Carol Anne Boone entered the picture. Kaya Scodelario picked up the influential role and sported a pair of thick, wire-rimmed glasses straight from the decade, supporting Bundy and falling into his trap in the final stretch of his legal proceedings in Florida. Bundy, serving as his own representative and in the middle of questioning the defendant, proposes to Boone in the courtroom. Even the judge, played competently by John Malkovich, cannot resist Bundy’s charm. 

“Bless your heart,” he manages before trying to return some form of order to his courtroom in the first nationally televised trial in American history. 

While the comedy sprinkled throughout would be a pleasant addition to anything but a movie about a serial murderer, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” should not have been anything more than a petrifying depiction of a real-life monster. For a movie with so much potential, it seemed to be too lighthearted and missed the major point of understanding Ted Bundy. 

What Berlinger fails to do is confront Bundy’s evil head-on. Like his victims and the captivated women in the courtroom, Berlinger is transfixed with Bundy’s charisma and shies away from his mysterious and deadly inner workings. What is missing from the film is an extensive background on the life of Ted Bundy prior to the murders, which instead provides a dominant role for Kloepfer who has a minimal effect on the story (other than providing a clean way to wrap it up). To make the storyline even more gripping and add more to Bundy’s puzzling character, life prior to the crimes should receive some air time. Perhaps he leaves out the majority of Bundy’s heinous crimes on purpose—who can blame him—but a major part of the account is ignored by discussing only his Chi Omega murders out of a confessed 30. 

Bundy remains a misunderstood enigma, but what the film does is make viewers sympathize with the cold-hearted killer. Efron dazzles so much that Bundy and his acts are very much glorified instead of looked upon with the sorrow and disgust that they should evoke. He shows his prowess at using his well-known good looks to channel Bundy’s attitude, covering up the cracks in the infamous serial killer’s character alarmingly well. 

Aside from an unfortunate, dizzying camera angle to draw attention to a turning point in the movie between Bundy and Boone in the prison visiting room, the film does not seem to have many technical errors to the average viewer. It sets up the time frame well by casting an old-fashioned and eerie filter on the “past” part of the movie and makes excellent use of snow-covered aerial scenes to hide that it was actually filmed in 2018. 

Concluding with a chilling scene in the hours before Bundy’s execution, Kloepfer and Bundy return to where the movie began. She begs for him to “release her” from his hold on her and asks for the truth. Armed with a confidential case file containing a grisly image of one of Bundy’s headless victims, Kloepfer demands to know how he did it. 

“HACK SAW,” Bundy scrawls on the glass divider. Kloepfer breaks down and runs out of the room as the final instrumental soundtrack, a fitting ‘Ave Maria,’ begins to play. 

Using a clean end that effectively ties up the loose ends in part through the documentary-style use of real footage from Bundy’s case and dramatic captions, Berlinger almost redeems himself from the pitfalls of the movie. He rises above a clumsy and cumbersome title, and “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” leaves viewers with an intense, nervous feeling and a desire to lock the doors. While Berlinger still had much to add to the film, it offers a taste of Ted Bundy that leaves you, wretchedly enough, wanting more. 

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