From Charles Manson to John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer, public fascination often goes hand-in-hand with stories of serial killers. Is it because the things these people do are so monstrous and evil that the public finds them as compelling as your average movie villain? Is it like watching a crime drama live and in-the-flesh that they get to be a part of? People see these accused killers as characters in a show and start to get invested in them. They want to know their backstory, know what makes them tick, hopefully in an effort to figure out why they did what they did, if they did it at all. When people get too invested in a character, how do they remember the real person there and separate him from a fantasy narrative?
Someone who needed to have a great distance between himself and a salivating public was Ted Bundy, the man who killed over 30 women in multiple states between 1974 and 1978. The brutality of his crimes would be bad enough on their own, but Bundy turned out to be a charismatic law student who represented himself during his trial in 1979. He was also a show-off in front of a Florida judge while cameras rolled in the first-ever national broadcast of a murder trial. He gave interviews with a smile and strutted around while being read his indictment. He captivated a nation even after he was executed. A man so boastful with his believed innocence tied to such brutal murders would be a filmmaker’s dream, a man so magnetic with his personality and shocking with his brutality makes him one tailored suit and makeup job away from being a Batman villain.
But there’s the distance that needs to be there, observing Bundy without engaging him. As interesting as his story might be, Bundy doesn’t have all the say in it. That duty fell to screenwriter Michael Werwie and director Joe Berlinger (Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster), who try to hone in on Bundy’s personal journey and one of his long-term victims: Elizabeth Kendall, a single mother he considered his true love. Based on her memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, Liz’s story seemed like love at first sight when she met Bundy (Zac Efron) by the jukebox of a dingy Utah bar in 1969. Liz (Lily Collins) is a closed-off single mom at first but Bundy’s bright smile and relaxed charm sweep her off of her feet. Then Ted gets arrested and jailed in 1975 for kidnapping and assault despite confidently declaring his innocence. He’s extradited to Colorado for another trial desperate for Liz to believe him as she loses faith in him more and more each time they speak. Ted starts getting media attention and poses for cameras, garnering the eye of the American public. It’s only when he faces the death penalty during his Florida trial that he has a stage to flex his belief. But Liz still can’t shake her own doubt of whether or not Ted is actually a monster.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile got too close to its subject. Though it’s adapted from Liz’s perspective, the movie focuses almost entirely on Ted maintaining his supposed innocence. For a movie based on a book with the subtitle My Life with Ted Bundy, not much is shown of Liz’s time with Ted outside of police custody. The couple was apparently together for nearly six years before Ted was arrested and even considered getting married, yet Extremely Wicked doesn’t show moments of the couple finding common ground with each other or why these two stayed together for so long aside from each other’s good looks. The nagging question of the movie is “Why does Liz defend Ted for so long,” and that only comes up because there’s nothing in the movie that shows why the two are so passionate about each other. Even from Ted’s perspective, it’s never made clear why he wanted her affection and support for so long. The movie keeps trying to tell the audience that Liz is Ted’s motivation to fight for his innocence without offering the other side of the story, despite the source material supporting it.
Extremely Wicked also keeps trying to convince the audience how nice of a guy Ted Bundy was and how mean the men of the world were to him. He’s shoved around by cops and harassed by attorneys but he just can’t seem to understand why. The movie sees Ted as nothing more than a wrongly accused swinger who had an amusing Atticus Finch impression in court. There’s the waiting period for the other shoe to drop and for the movie to show Bundy’s savagery, proving that he was the murderous bastard he was accused of being. That moment only happens in the last five minutes of the 110-minute runtime and it’s well executed, but the payoff has been anticipated so much through such a strange narrative that it’s as hollow and empty as Bundy’s emotions toward his victims.
Extremely Wicked has some of the most distracting examples of stunt casting that even David Fincher would snicker at. Efron took a big swing with playing one of the most infamous serial killers in American history and to his credit, he does it well. He’s charming and confident to a point of concerning extent while showing slight signs of aggressive behavior. He gets to show the dark side of Bundy at the end of the movie as he stares down his fate. But there’s still an unhinged element missing from his performance that Bundy displayed in real life, making Efron come off more like a Wall Street stockbroker than a convicted, violent felon. Collins is relegated to being a weepy-eyed widower for most of the movie and doesn’t get to build Liz’s character in any way. She’s just chugging booze and clutching the telephone debating whether or not she should answer Bundy’s phone calls. Collins is a charming actress with a bright presence in other movies (Mirror Mirror, Love, Rosie) but there isn’t much else to her when all that sunshine is drained. Aside from the two leads are a plethora of distracting casting choices including Jim Parsons, Haley Joel Osment and even John freakin’ Malkovich that whip the viewer right out of the movie’s drama (or lack thereof).
There’s nothing wrong with trying to find sympathy for an accused criminal at the center of a story, it could even help uncover a motive for what makes someone so evil. But Extremely Wicked downright ADORES Ted Bundy, practically holding a picket sign outside the Florida courthouse that reads “Free Ted Bundy!” Aside from being visually dull and narratively confused, it focuses on the wrong aspects of the Bundy case and adjusts course far too late. There’s nothing new learned from Liz’s perspective nor is there anything revelatory about Bundy’s demeanor. The whole movie feels like a stunt to see how much sympathy can be afforded to a man doesn’t deserve an ounce of it. That’s not something that would be classified as “daring” or “edgy,” more like “pointless” and “stupid,” especially in 2019.