As this new age of true crime wears on, powered by podcasts, social media, and endless docuseries, the same concerns about sensationalism and exploitation persist. Does the public’s fascination with grisly murders end up glorifying the perpetrators of these horrific acts? Is the lurid thrill we get from listening to conversations with killers worth giving them the very attention they might crave? These are all questions worth pondering as Netflix debuts a new fiction film about Ted Bundy, titled Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, on its service and in limited theaters today. But they’re not questions the movie itself is interested in asking.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, which stars Zac Efron as Bundy, is hitting Netflix mere months after the streaming service debuted a nonfiction miniseries about taped interviews the serial killer did while on death row. Both titles were directed by Joe Berlinger, a veteran of true-crime storytelling who has made landmark documentaries about miscarriages of justice, such as Paradise Lost (1996) and Brother’s Keeper (1992). Yet the Bundy series came off as a glancing failure, and this feature-length drama is just as inelegant. Berlinger’s latest film attempts to reckon with the legacy of a brutal murderer who cynically cultivated his public image to make himself seem more alluring, but the story fails to dig in to the horrifying implications of how Bundy was able to succeed.
As portrayed by Efron, the Bundy of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is mostly calm, charismatic, and self-assured. The killer is introduced as a conventionally handsome man who lives a relatively ordinary life in the Seattle area with his long-term girlfriend, Liz Kendall (played by Lily Collins). Early in the film, Bundy is arrested in Utah and accused of aggravated assault, the first in a string of charges that would lead to his execution in Florida many years later, in 1989. Collins plays Kendall as passive and initially confused by these goings-on, believing Bundy’s vague denials and supporting him in court. But she quickly fades into the background, and the film becomes more of a courtroom drama focusing on Bundy’s various trials and his two escapes from prison.
The script, by Michael Werwie, is credited as an adaptation of the The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy, which was written by the killer’s real-life girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer, under the pseudonym Elizabeth Kendall. (The movie uses the latter name for her character.) Kloepfer dated Bundy for roughly six years, including a good chunk of time after he was first arrested. The memoir narrates her confusing relationship with him, including details of his aggressive, frightening behavior. Though the film initially masquerades as a story told from Kloepfer/Kendall’s perspective, it doesn’t commit to the concept. Instead, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is primarily curious about Bundy’s pathology. His 1979 murder trial was one of the first to be nationally televised in the United States, and he represented himself for most of the court proceedings, gaining a bizarre cult following as a result. Berlinger, too, seems transfixed by the mythos of Bundy’s public persona, even as the director tries to illustrate the “ordinary man” that people such as Kloepfer thought they knew.
Efron’s performance is, at best, capable; the actor has the bland good looks required for the role but none of the underlying menace. The entire enterprise feels deeply fragmented, with brief guest appearances by actors such as Jim Parsons (as the Florida attorney who prosecuted Bundy) and John Malkovich (as the showboat judge who presided over the trial) failing to provide much of a spark as the plot moves through the basic details of Bundy’s time in jail. For her part, Kendall eventually accepts the truth of her boyfriend’s monstrousness and cuts off contact with him, but the movie is largely disinterested in dramatizing that break, reducing major moments of emotional development (such as Kendall quitting drinking) to brief, wordless montages.
The film plays like an episodic drama with certain episodes removed, namely Bundy’s senseless assaults and murders of young women, which happened both before his arrest and after his prison breakouts. Including this material, important though it might be to a complete understanding of Bundy, would have been genuinely exploitative. But that fact only underscores the problem this project faced from the beginning, and a quandary Berlinger fails to untangle: By focusing on only Bundy’s public face, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile succumbs to the same easy stereotypes that the press did during his trial, marveling at how a well-spoken, decent-looking man could possibly do such heinous things. The film clearly doesn’t intend to sympathize with Bundy, yet in making him the star, it can’t avoid doing so to an extent. It’s hard to know if there will ever be an essential and definitive fiction film about Bundy. But this certainly isn’t it.