extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile
Review by Hiram Harrington
In the past year, the popularity of True Crime properties has grown. An increasing cultural fascination with the acts of the deranged have spawned Podcast, after YouTube video, after documentary, after film. And with full disclosure - I have been part of this fascination from a young age. Despite this, of course, I have always managed to avoid veering into the fetishization of these individuals. However, this is something which Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile appears to have failed at.
Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is the latest in a line of properties regarding the life of serial killer Ted Bundy (played, in this iteration, by High School Musical alum Zac Efron). Bundy has seen more critical examination than most American serial killers because of his supposedly endearing charm, and in particular, because of his sensational bewitchment of young women. To bring this “quality” to the screen once more, in the mind of this audience member, was a mistake. Rarely is a reviewer granted an opportunity to review a film that so aptly describes the experience of watching it in the title itself.
Based on the memoir of Bundy’s longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile follows the story of his killings from a supposed insider’s perspective. Told from the view of Kloepfer (portrayed Lily Collins), the film details their meeting and subsequent years together, interspersed with the story of Bundy’s imprisonment and infamous criminal trial. This is no ordinary life-of docudrama of a killer, however. We see the story almost entirely from Kloepfer’s eyes - killings, or lack thereof, and all.
It is impossible not to note the fact that Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is undoubtedly a star vehicle for Efron. A major step away from the cheer of his Disney Channel Original Movie days, his turn as Bundy is as disappointing as it is accurate. At home, he is the friendly and caring partner, willing to love a single mother and her playful daughter. Beyond the walls of his darling Liz’s home, and beyond where the audience can see, lies the real terror. We never see Bundy do anything, unless it is something he later tells Liz that he has done. It is rare for a film about a murderer to not show said murders, but the reality is that Bundy never told Kloepfer about any of his killings, and never confessed to them.
The problems with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile begin with this. In showing how Kloepfer and later Carol Anne Boone (Kaya Scodelario in a truly pitiful turn) fell under his spell, the film asks the audience to do the same. It begs us to see Bundy as he saw himself: a tragic victim of the justice system, until the very end. The film concludes with Bundy’s wordless confession to Liz that he did, in fact, use a hacksaw to remove a woman’s head. It’s an emotional climax that makes little sense - we know he’s the killer, so why is this played as such a shock? It may be to Kloepfer, but there’s little satisfaction in her elicitation of the confession. We know the truth, and it’s spelled out in the thirty names of Bundy’s known victims that are shown onscreen at the end of the film. It asks us to believe in an eccentric guy, framed for crimes he didn’t commit, only to tear the rug out from under us. It appears as if Berlinger is attempting to evoke the same emotions that Kloepfer must have experienced as his lover, but without any nuance or tact whatsoever.
Ultimately, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is an exercise in psychology that fails to meet the standards its predecessors in the world of life-to-drama adaptations have set. Portrayals of serial killers on the big screen do more harm than good because it is the very nature of filmmaking to glorify the subject. Many may believe Ted Bundy did not deserve what he got - I believe his story did not deserve the film it was shot on. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is, morally, just that. But, it’s also an enticing way to spend an hour and a half, which would honestly be better spent reading his Wikipedia article. It would have far less of Lily Collins’ tears, no poorly-cast cameos from John Malkovich and Jim Parsons, and so, so many less problems.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile premieres on Netflix and Sky Cinema on May 3rd.