2019 | rated R | starring Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, John Malkovich, Jim Parsons, Haley Joel Osment | directed by Joe Berlinger | 1 hr 50 mins |
In August of 1975, Ted Bundy was arrested and charged with the murder and dismemberment of over 30 women, from nurses to sorority girls, across Colorado, was put through a trial that quickly became a media sensation and would go down in history as one of America’s first and most prolific serial killers. But Bundy would stand out from the rest of the killers with one defining quality – he was handsome and charismatic, a quality that caused women to pack the courtroom and plead for his release in ’75 and then again in 2019 take to social media to gush over how hot he is with the renewed true-crime interest in this case by Netflix and their release of The Ted Bundy Tapes and this docu-drama, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.
The film (that wordy title taken straight from the sentencing judge played here by John Malkovich), is scripted, shot and put together like a standard bio-pic. A movie that feels like every other docu-drama now that spends most of it’s running time showcasing the accurate detail it has recreated the real life, well documented events of the case. Bundy acting as his own attorney sparing with the judge in a trial that became a cameras-in-the-courtroom circus 2 decades before the OJ Simpson trial – yep. Bundy parading around in front of the prosecutor reading his charges – yep. The period detail, the costumes, the actors similarity – all technical accomplishments that never really do a lot for me. The centerpiece of it all is Zac Efron’s admittedly very good performance that nails Bundy in both looks and mannerisms. It’s a star turn for Efron as a serious actor after years of shedding his High School Musical persona with raunchy studio comedies (though I do love Neighbors).
Underneath this not-very-interesting standard bio-pic seem to be a lot of different, sometimes conflicting things, clanking around. Vile tries to do a lot for a lot of people within the formula and I’m not sure how successful it all is, but the juxtaposition of a few of these things really got me thinking in a way I’m not sure the movie intended.
The film is based on the memoir of longtime Bundy girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall (Lilly Collins, also very good) and for the first half tells the story from her perspective as the two share a romance and she watches as the man she loves and professes his innocence is hauled off to jail and put on trial. It’s an interesting entry point and feels a bit like an answer to last year’s Chappaquiddick, which arguably would have been more interesting if told from Mary Joe Kopechne’s perspective instead of Ted Kennedy’s cover-up. This also means we don’t see any of the murders and if you didn’t know any better would think that this was a movie about a poor handsome guy being railroaded by the system.
I’ve written before about the post-Making a Murder/Serial trend particularly on Netflix to produce things that expose the flaws in the justice system and cheer for the wrongfully confused. Vile seems to want to catch a bit of that trend as well, which is hard when you’re telling the true story of friggin’ Ted Bundy. So it uses Kendall’s POV to back into that. Then halfway through it abandons that and she gets lost to the sensationalism of the trial where we see Bundy turning the courtroom into his own theater, clashing with his public attorney and interrogating his witnesses. It’s the part of the film where frequent true crime director Joe Berlinger seems most at home and fires on all cylinders. Both Kendall’s love-struck and Bundy’s sociopathic denials of the reality do come to a firecracker head in the finale. Dare I say it’s worth it.
Extremely Wicked is an ok bio-pic boilstered by a star-studded case giving great performances and a real life story that is still wildly entertaining no matter how blandly you tell it. It has a few things to say about Kendall, Bundy and the cult of celebrity but it loses focus in all the conflicting goals and trying to hit all the high points (and escapes) of Bundy’s time in prison instead of picking a few and thoroughly mining them.
Note: Based on Netflix’s decision to not renew ‘The OA’ , it will be this author’s policy to no longer review or promote their products. This will be the last review of a Netflix Original movie, acquired in the US for domestic distribution.