Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil & Vile is a biopic from The Ted Bundy Tapes director, Joe Berlinger, executive produced by its leading man, Zac Efron and based on the memoir of Bundy’s former girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall. Unlike other serial killer biopics that have come before it which have either chosen to depict the true nature of the killer and their descent into violent crime (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Monster) or avoid the criminality completely and instead choose to focus on the formative years of the killer, with an almost sympathetic perspective (My Friend Dahmer), Extremely Wicked... details Bundy’s time with Kendall beginning in 1969, around the time his crimes began and focuses on the events from his initial arrest and leading up to his execution.
The story is told through a series of flashbacks, with the present event being Kendall confronting Bundy for the last time as he waits in jail to be executed. We regularly flit between Bundy and Kendall and their perspectives as the film progresses and get a bizarre tonal shift as a result, from Bundy’s more fantastical perception of himself as a charming hero, to Kendall’s deep-seated guilt and slow realisation that her life with Bundy wasn’t everything it seemed.
Contrary to its source material, the first third of Extremely Wicked... paints Bundy’s life with Liz as domestic, relaxed and ordinary. When she sees his name in the papers after he is arrested for suspected attempted abduction she is surprised, there is no hint of the tumultuous nature of their relationship, or the time she recalls he tried to kill her while she slept, and only a passing mention of the first time she identified him in a police sketch. This is rectified in the last few minutes of the film, and I suspect was designed to take the viewers on the same emotional journey as Kendall- no one ever wants to believe their significant other is capable of such evil.
The tonal shift between character perspectives, while it makes sense for the structure of the film, can sometimes lose its way. Bundy’s second successful escape is presented as a desperate attempt to get back to his beloved Liz but then quickly changes its tune when he flees to Florida to continue his predatory spree. The film just doesn’t seem to be able to make its mind up whose side its on. While this could be argued as a hint at the duality of Bundy’s true personality, I think the narration of Bundy’s inner monologue misses the mark here and it would’ve more provocative had he been saying he needed Liz out loud and then fled to Florida anyway - A truer representation of the way in which psychopaths control peoples perceptions of them.
The Florida trial is by far the best part of this film, thanks to the real trial being one of the first televised trials in US history there’s plenty of footage of what actually happened and the film does a solid play-by-play of the key beats. It’s well documented that Judge Edward D. Cowart, who presided over Bundy’s Florida murder trial, commented on the charismatic nature with which Bundy conducted himself as his own legal council, and his closing speech was delivered beautifully by John Malkovich. On that note, the cast of this film work brilliantly together and all deliver solid performances. I had my reservations about ex-teen heartthrob, Efron as Bundy, but he does a good job, especially in the final third of the film, of showing Bundy as both charismatic and cold - the way he was often described by many profilers and investigators. It surprised me to see Haley Joel Osment (the kid from The Sixth Sense), Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper) and James Hetfield (yes, that James Hetfield) in supporting roles, each doing a great job of bringing their respective roles to life on the big screen. I enjoyed Lily Collins‘ portrayal of the grieving and guilt-stricken Liz but I’d hoped she’d get a little more screen time as the least well known member of the key cast and the writer of the source material.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil & Vile attempts to straddle the line between biopic and enjoyable cinematic romp but because of its chosen subject it falls short of either for a bit too long to hold most viewers. Had it been a fictional tale, a la American Psycho, or focused more on the relationship between Bundy and Kendall throughout, it could’ve been a fantastic film, but its penchant for a strange sense of reverence for Bundy, treating him almost like some sort of folk hero, comes across as unsettling and Kendall’s revelations about the true nature of their relationship at the end of the film is a welcome but all-too-late reprieve. One of Bundy’s survivors said she would be ok with the film as long as it was a teachable moment - to stop things like this ever happening again. I don’t really feel the film makers achieved this.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil & Vile is available to stream on Netflix (USA) and NowTV (UK).