Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (2019) Review!!!

Synopsis – A courtroom frenzy ensues and sweeps 1970s America when a young single mother reluctantly tips the attention of a widespread manhunt toward her longtime boyfriend, Ted Bundy.

My Take – It’s hard to admit it but somewhere inside we all are fascinated by true crimes and serial killers, and that is factually evident by how we all gallop to the latest documentaries, TV series and podcasts about them, with some looking for every gory little detail behind the violence and chaos.

In recent times, out of director Joe Berlinger‘s fascination, 30 years after his execution, one of America’s most notorious serial killer, Ted Bundy, has found himself back into the limelight. Confessed to have kidnapped, raped and murdered more than 30 young women in 1970s, prior to his execution in 1989, Bundy has been the focus of many filmmakers, however, the Berlinger directed Netflix’s four-part documentary series Conversations with a Killer, which centers on Bundy’s recorded interviews give the audience an actual glimpse into the mind of the real man.

Filled with information people may not be aware of or remembered about him, his life and crimes. And with this film, director Berlinger expands his examination of the killer’s story, with a dramatized retelling from the other side of the table. While choosing to devote a staggering amount of attention to one of the most notorious and sadistic serial killers in popular culture, perspective is crucial. Warning bells ring with threats of glamorization and the risks of audacious storytelling.

Thankfully this film seems to have considered every risk of misguided perspective. A major factor in play for that to happen as is how largely focuses on the relationship between Bundy and his girlfriend Elizabeth “Liz” Kloepfer Kendall, than the road to his killings.

Here, the feature provides a wider perspective, as the title takes its name from the rightfully scornful words of Edward Cowart, the presiding judge who sentenced Bundy to death and the story based on ‘The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy’, the memoir written by Elizabeth, here the character isn’t speaking directly to the camera as he does in the tapes, rather, a jack-in-the-box replica of the performative psychopath is brought to life by Zac Efron, who just makes him extremely watchable and shockingly easy-going as the villainous lead of this engaging crowd-pleaser.

The story follows Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), a single mother who has been struggling relationships. But things change when she meets Ted Bundy (Zac Efron), a handsome wannabe lawyer at a Seattle bar and falls head over heels with him. Mainly as despite her personal situation, Ted doesn’t run away the next morning, instead he wakes up early to fix breakfast and coffee. And unlike most men she has dated, he is attentive to not only her, but also to her young daughter.

Soon the couple are living together, with Ted spending his days studying up on criminal law and at nights caring for his surrogate family. However, things start to fall apart when Bundy is charged with aggravated abduction leaving Liz perplexed. Unfortunately for her, Bundy is soon linked with multiple disappearances and murders in the states of Colorado, Utah and Florida, sending Liz down an emotional spiral for a decade, as Bundy’s sentencing trail begins.

During the lengthiest of prison stints, Kendall starts dating a co-worker named Jerry (Haley Joel Osment). While Bundy reluctantly gives up on calling Kendall after she stops answering him, and latches on to another poor sucker named Carole Anne Boone (Kaya Scodelario).

While a serial killer film is usually fixated in following the norms, for instance, showing all the murders in slow-paced and full details, repetitively confirming the fact that a particular character is really a sociopath by presenting 8 or 9 scenes of him/her in fits of violent anger, and so on. Here, director Berlinger is more focused on hammering a clear, but necessary message: how intelligent, charismatic, innocent-looking, and convincing a serial killer can be in real life. We see no calculation or carnivorous thirst behind the eyes, only swoon-worthy compassion.

When he is arrested in Utah for aggravated kidnapping and attempted criminal assault that smooth operating shifts to fiery resilience. One thing that this film did correctly is that you never see Bundy commit any of the crimes of which he is accused, at least not until the very end of the film.  And the scary thing about this is that it makes it entirely possible to believe he is innocent.

The film just gives us hints of what’s scrolling through his mind with visual clues, like the sensual placement of his hand around Liz’s throat during a sex scene, or the way he kisses her forehead so as to give the impression of dominance over sweetness, or his generally fidgety yet somehow composed demeanor, or the overlaid news of accusations during a montage of Bundy being a delightful family man. The evidence insists that he did, of course, and our own historical perspective knows full well that he did.

There are genuinely heartfelt moments between Liz and Ted that give the film an almost queasy pleasantness, just as the sheer brazenness of Ted’s escape from a Colorado courthouse cannot be depicted as anything less than comically ingenious. But then that is the real heart of the matter: there is something dangerously ingratiating about clever Ted, be it the romantic, the cunning fugitive, or the self-styled lawyer who winds up running most of his defense during the film’s third act legal drama climax.

And yet, it is all of those things that made it easy for him to operate as a prolific murderer in so many states for years, and to offer more than coffee to the dozens of women he slaughtered, tortured, and worse. As a result his revelation in the last few minutes of the film had the most impact, sending an icy chill down your back.

This film is also unusual because, by focusing largely on the relationship between Bundy and his girlfriend Liz, the story could quite easily be spun into one of those mystery dramas where a seemingly wrongly accused man ends up actually being guilty (or not), but where the tension comes from being torn as to whether or not they actually did it.

Here everybody knows the name Ted Bundy, but the angle is exactly the same, with Ted and Liz going around in circles as the man goes to extreme lengths to try and remain ostensibly good, fighting the authorities, and maintaining his innocence, particularly in the eyes of the woman he seemingly loves.

Here, Liz is the second main character, juxtaposed with Ted’s escapades and court appearances.  She holds out hope for Ted, believing in his innocence, yet condemning herself to a life of guilt for pointing a finger early on. This guilt drives her to alcoholism and depression, hence presenting a weird dichotomy of the two with Ted is a horrible person but can present himself charismatically to the public with seemingly no remorse, and Liz being an innocent person and an upstanding citizen, but because of her relationship with Ted, she becomes destroyed from within.

However, the film’s pitfalls come from some colossal ideas which don’t hit their desired spots. For example, for all of the film’s own ingenuity, it is telling a serial killer’s escapades as a kind of wrongfully accused adventure for most of its running time.

While every audience member knows that Ted is a demon in a shiny package, the film soft-pedals his heinousness in order for viewers to be at least partially intrigued. Ted’s crimes, among other things, show a sickening level of misogyny and hatred of women that is barely ever glimpsed here, as a result, it mistakenly ends up glorifying the intellect and thrall of the killer at the disservice of his many victims.

Coming to the performances, like most I too felt skeptical when Zac Efron was cast in the lead role, but you have to give it to him, as his performance is the greatest highlight of this film. Here, the former teen star masters Bundy’s unnerving charm, but always keeps a glint of menace in his eyes and flared nostrils. He performs normalcy the way only a psychopath can. His performance is stark, realistic and terrifying. He is so convincing in fact that even though you know the truth, when he tells Liz, he is innocent, and you almost believe him.

Another outstanding performance here is of Lily Collins, who goes from sublime to depressed to hopeful to alcoholic to content to guilt-ridden to proud.  As the woman who was tricked for years to love a monster and believe his puppy dog eyes, Collins is given the more heavy lifting work to do, including by overcoming how the screenplay often relies on stereotypical broad strokes to overemphasize her depression, drinking, or inability to let Ted go.

In supporting roles, Kaya Scodelario, Angela Sarafyan and Haley Joel Osment, are also effective. While in smaller roles, John Malkovich, Jim Parsons, Jeffrey Donovan, Brian Geraghty, Terry Kinney, Victoria Cox, Dylan Baker and James Hetfield Grace are good. On the whole, ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ is a remarkably unique serial killer film uplifted by Zac Efron‘s brilliant, powerful, charming, and darkly captivating performance.

Directed – Joe Berlinger

Starring – Lily Collins, Zac Efron, Angela Sarafyan

Rated – R

Run Time – 110 minutes

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