“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” the stridently descriptive and wordy title for Joe Berlinger’s narrative feature about Ted Bundy, could have been more conveniently used to refer to Lars von Trier’s “The House That Jack Built.” That ghastly picture from the Danish auteur revels in the grotesque and sadistic exploits of a serial murderer, as the monster intellectualizes his crimes and is outspoken about his desire to kill.
“Extremely Wicked” takes a completely opposite approach to engaging with the actions of its own hazardous charmer. Working from Michael Werwie’s Blacklist script, Berlinger — whose career in documentary has concentrated on the perpetrators and victims of heinous crimes — adamantly refrains from displaying explicit physical violence, opting instead to dwell on the efficacy of Bundy’s manipulation tactics. To that end, “Extremely Wicked” is less a play-by-play perusal of the killer’s methods and perversions, and more an examination of our biases and unending fascination for those among us that find twisted fulfillment in brutality.
Rather than opening with a gory episode, Berlinger introduces us to law student Ted (Zac Efron) having a romantic encounter with single mom Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins) at a Seattle bar in 1969. An instant hit with Liz’s daughter Molly, though not as much with the dog they adopt, Bundy quickly moves in with them under the premise of starting an unassuming life together.
Not long after, and much to Liz’s disbelief, he winds up arrested in connection to a kidnapping; she’s convinced that it’s because his face looks oddly similar to the sketch of the suspect. With unnerving conviction, Ted insists that the incident a misunderstanding, that the authorities are searching for a scapegoat. Admitting guilt is not part of his ongoing systematic evasion of the truth; even when he is convicted, Ted escapes through a window and mysteriously appears near another scene of unspeakable carnage.
Efron is savagely convincing in the most psychologically-layered performance of his career. The actor’s persona as an attractive, clean-cut, straight white man groomed within the Disney machinery — further cemented by turns in bro-friendly comedies — has positioned him as the perfect choice to personify the kind of evil that festers beneath a wholesome façade, neatly packaged for self-preservation.
Harnessing good looks as deceptive camouflage to inspire trust allowed Bundy to defy the archetypal image of nefarious predators and to elude justice for as long as he did. Malevolent beauty was similarly examined in Luis Ortega’s recent Argentine drama “El Angel,” which chronicles the appalling transgressions of Carlos Robledo Puch, a teenage serial killer whose angelic face consistently got him off the hook. Both examples debunk the Social Darwinist theories of Cesare Lombroso, an Italian criminologist who claimed deviants could be identified by their unappealing physical traits and defects. Handsome individuals, he believed, weren’t genetically disposed to behave with such ruthlessness.
Berlinger’s orchestration of Werwie’s text effectively operates as a mystery from Liz’s vantage point, even if anyone familiar with Bundy knows the full extent of his misdeeds. For her, the man she loves has been wrongly convicted and that injustice, for which she feels partly responsible, torments her. Though believable as a woman in a permanent state of distress, Collins is mostly captured in one-note takes of suffering. It’s not the actress’s fault that this character study only turns to her when Bundy calls from prison (to quote Henri Charrière’s “Papillon”), when investigators knock at her door, or as the televised trial — the first one in American history — entrances the country. Nevertheless, a final confrontation between Liz and Bundy both serves as cathartic resolution and grants the actress an empowering moment.
Efron’s articulate portrayal, particularly during the circus of the courtroom sequences, is astute enough to beguile viewers who don’t have a thorough background in the case. Confidently dismissive of the facts, Bundy could make you doubt the accusations against him as he acted as his own attorney. Efron nails that psychopathic superpower through reassuring gestures and a chillingly good-tempered demeanor.
By interspersing the fictionalized account with archival footage to accentuate the clues that point to what Liz refuses to accept, Berlinger counteracts some of the moments that may seem over-the-top or simply too unfeasible to be real. No killer before Bundy or since managed to get away with nearly as much; the film’s moments of madness that seem the most implausible are, in the greatest tradition of truth being stranger than fiction, the ones that actually occurred.
That non-fiction footage acts simultaneously as a palate cleanser from the often excessive use of music in an attempt to smooth out the disjointed, non-chronological editing via evocative montages. Most members of the supporting cast go nearly unnoticed in small parts that are functional for the plot but not otherwise emotionally resonant. They include Haley Joel Osment as Liz’s new boyfriend, John Malkovich as moody Judge Edward Cowart, and Jim Parsons as the prosecutor. Only Kaya Scodelario, deftly playing obsessed Bundy groupie Carole Anne Boone, transcends the material.
This is Efron’s show, with all elements gravitating towards him for better or worse. Despite the inherent flaws in Werwie’s script, “Extremely Wicked” winds up a thought-provoking piece of cinema that avoids the easy temptation of shock value in favor of a more philosophical take on a diabolical murderer.