Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile (starring Zac Efron and Lily Collins and directed by Joe Berlinger) is billed as a crime thriller with some critics describing it as a crime drama. It is therefore, supposed to chronicle the life of serial killer Ted Bundy, specifically his crimes in either a thrilling or dramatic way, but after watching this latest Bundy-biopic, I wasn’t thrilled or emotionally engaged at all. There have of course been many films about Ted Bundy over the years and most of them have been passable. I’d say that the 1986 film The Deliberate Stranger starring Mark Harmon was the best of them all, and unfortunately for Berlinger, Efron, and Collins, it still is.
In translating this true story to film, the writer and director had a few options; they could have told the story from an investigative point of view a la Zodiac or they could have given us a straight-forward TV-movie-style chronology like the aforementioned Deliberate Stranger. What Berlinger seems to have opted for however is option 3; a jumbled mess, cutting back and forth between time and juxtaposing news footage with average acting. There’s clunky editing throughout the film, and given this is a film about a serial killer, it strangely rushes through key events, purposely avoiding thrills like an acrophobic at Six Flags.
What Berlinger couldn’t be bothered to film he shows as old news footage which feels completely at odds with the atmosphere (or lack thereof) that he’s created. Yes we know you’re a documentary maker but this is supposed to be a frigging film so film something instead of using news reels and stock footage. By using real-life pictures of Ted Bundy in the news reports, this detaches the viewer from the potential real-life feel, and the real and the fake becomes obvious when you compare the actual Ted Bundy with Zac Efron playing him.
For all the casting publicity that preceded this film’s release, to me Zac Efron aside from his beady eyes looks nothing like Ted Bundy who seemed to be in perpetual middle-aged man-mode. Zac looks too young and too stocky to be Bundy, in fact he looks no more like him than Mark Harmon, in fact Harmon conveyed the killer’s smarmy-ness much better which in turn added to the cat and mouse feel of that particular movie. I recall Mark’s Ted Bundy toying with the Police as he cleaned the evidence from his Volkswagen Beetle right in front of them which was a great scene to watch, unfortunately great scenes are missing from this film.
Zac Efron lost some of his weight after this film wrapped and ironically, he now looks more like the serial killer. It was a strange decision to get the post-Baywatch Efron to portray a slender killer – I never knew Bundy was so hench – it was like getting Jason Statham to play John Christie. For all the hype surrounding his performance, I found Efron to be as bland in this movie as he usually is, he may be watchable in comedies but there’s nothing here that stands out among his other “serious” roles such as the craptastic Greatest Showman. When you watch the footage that plays during the closing credits and see how Ted Bundy actually spoke; his mannerisms, his voice, his ticks, at that point you realise how inaccurate Efron’s portrayal was.
The rest of the cast aren’t much better. Lily Collins (who plays Bundy’s girlfriend) is a very overrated actor, looking like a malnourished Dua Lipa impersonator with zero charisma. Other than nepotism, I can’t see the reason why she’s ever cast in a film, I guess smoking and looking miserable passes for acting these days. There’s also Haley Joel Osment in an unneeded role and John Malkovich (playing Judge Edward Cowart who utters the sentence which inspired the title) who looks like he’s doing some more pot boiler work (Velvet… ahem… Buzzsaw). Hopefully he’s recouped what he lost to Bernie Madoff so he can start doing decent work again.
Joe Berlinger seems to think that you can make a 1970s-set film by numbers; colour grade everything until it’s almost sepia, put all the actors in flares, make sure all the cars are old, and turn on a classic rock song (the overused “Crimson And Clover” by Tommy James And The Shondells is in yet another film… woo hoo!). And yet with all these contrivances there’s still a sense of inaccuracy here; aside from the bland performances, the amount of wonky wigs and glued-on lamb-chops on display, it’s like watching an am-dram performance held in a thrift store.
So what do you do when you’ve watched the finished cut of your film and you realise you’ve made a steaming pile of crap? You of course throw in a pointless quote to add some faux gravitas to the proceedings. Although even with this reasoning, what the hell does the quote “Few people have the imagination for reality” by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe have to do with Ted Bundy, serial killers, or indeed shite movies? And even if it did, why pray tell do we need to know Johann’s birth and death day (1749-1832)? The oddest aspect of the entire film however is the ending. The closing prison-visit “reveal” is for some unknown reason edited like something between The Usual Suspects and Primal Fear which is so utterly pointless since we know what Ted Bundy did.
Like I’ve already said, this movie isn’t anywhere near David Fincher’s classic Zodiac but if you hire the director of Blair Witch 2 to direct a serious crime drama, you know what you’re gonna get. Extremely Wicked is a Netflix film in the US and a Sky Cinema Original here in the UK, and you know that when a film is released to stream at home at the same time as it’s released in the cinema, it’s the modern equivalent of being straight-to-DVD… basically not worth the cost of a ticket.
Extremely Wicked is not a serial killer thriller, it’s not a crime drama, and it’s not a courtroom drama either, it’s just a drab film which isn’t sure what it is and what it wants to say. It has more in common with the terrible Gotti biopic given the timeline jumping and all-round amateur feel. Joe Berlinger also directed the Netflix documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, and that too was rather lacklustre. With two Ted Bundy pieces under his belt, he’s not exactly blowing the roof off the subject that he apparently feels so inspired to delve into multiple times. Why even bother making a film when you’ve already made the documentary, especially when you’re adding nothing to the story you’ve already told?
Given that this film is based on Bundy’s girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall’s memoirs, some critics have said that this film tells the story from her perspective but this is inaccurate. The movie does seem very confused however, unsure on who to focus on; the killer or his family. You can kinda picture some studio executive “suggesting” there be a feminist slant to this film given that it tells the story of a killer of women but like most cases of Hollywood faux-inclusivity, this feels like an afterthought. With a so-called female perspective, Extremely Wicked doesn’t shed any light on what it is was like living with a literal ladykiller so what was the point in avoiding the actual serial killing? And how feminist to ignore all the female casualties of a misogynist murderer with their names relegated to a pre-credit list like some meat in a steakhouse menu.
There was so much the writer and director could have done with this subject matter. Spike Lee’s Summer Of Sam proved that you can tell a real-life tale of a killer without focussing on the killing but Extremely Wicked isn’t at all like that movie. E.W.S.E.A.V. doesn’t really want to do anything new or original, the filmmakers could have taken some artistic risk but they haven’t, this is as conventional as a movie can get. Instead of the removal of violence and the addition of wives and girlfriends, they could have told the entire film from the point of view of a wannabe lawyer, with Bundy’s defense being the most important aspect of his life, more important than his killing and the ensuing failure of his chosen career ending with the judge’s statement… “You’re a bright young man. You’d have made a good lawyer and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. I don’t feel any animosity toward you. I want you to know that. Take care of yourself”. Hell, they could have made this into the weirdest Herbie reboot but no, they’ve instead made a forgettable, insignificant movie that will fade away like Ted Bundy’s hopes of being a politician, psychologist, or lawyer. The fact that Bundy never really figured out what to study at university, aimlessly wandering around subjects and later dropping them, maybe that’s the reason for the disjointed way this film is constructed, maybe the unfocused storytelling is a metaphor for his personality. If only that were true. But no, without any rhyme or reason, this film is aimless and incoherent or…
Extremely Boring, Shockingly Dull And Not Worthwhile.