|Director: Joe Berlinger |
|Screenplay: Michael Werwie (based on the book The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall) |
|Stars: Zac Efron (Ted Bundy), Lily Collins (Liz Kendall), Kaya Scodelario (Carole Ann Boone), John Malkovich (Judge Edward Cowart), Jeffrey Donovan (John O’Connell), Angela Sarafyan (Joanna), Dylan Baker (David Yocom), Brian Geraghty (Dan Dowd), Jim Parsons (Larry Simpson), Haley Joel Osment (Jerry Thompson), Grace Victoria Cox (Carol Daronch), Terry Kinney (Det. Mike Fisher), James Hetfield (Officer Bob Hayward)|
|MPAA Rating: R|
|Year of Release: 2019|
The awkwardly titled true-crime drama Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is an intriguing and tangled web of a movie that wants to be one thing, but largely fails to be that. Based on the long out-of-print 1981 memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy, the film is intended to turn the tables on the typical serial killer drama by focusing not on the killer himself, but rather on someone who was close to him, yet unaware that she was involved with a monster. In other words, it is supposed to be a serial killer story told from the point of view of a victim who survived, which would be a natural for director Joe Berlinger, whose career has been built primarily around gripping true-crime documentaries like the Paradise Lost trilogy (1996, 2000, 2011), which covered the controversies surrounding the conviction of the “West Memphis Three,” and most recently, the four-episode television doc Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019). Berlinger has a gift for developing character and intrigue and structuring his narratives like thrillers, so to make a serial killer film from a victim’s perspective feels like a natural fit for one of his rare forays outside the documentary format.
The film’s victim is the author of the memoir, Elizabeth “Liz” Kendall (a pen name for Elizabeth Kloepfer), who was romantically involved with Bundy from 1969 to 1974, a five-year period during which he brutally murdered more than a dozen young women in five states. Writing the memoir was Liz’s way of trying to rid herself of the nightmares left over from her involvement with Bundy (a part of whom she confessed to still loving) by facing them directly, which obviously puts her at the center of the narrative. And, while she is certainly a privileged and important character in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the story—as the title would suggest—is still centered primarily on Bundy himself, leaving Liz off-screen for lengthy periods of time and showing us more of his life than hers. That is arguably a failure of storytelling and a betrayal of Kendall’s intent, but Berlinger’s film is so absorbing in its own right and Zac Efron gives such an engaging, magnetic performance as the charming sociopath that it’s impossible to dismiss it for what it doesn’t do.
What Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile does do is portray Bundy as Liz likely saw him: as a victim himself being framed, railroaded, blamed for crimes he swore up and down he didn’t commit. The screenplay by newcomer Michael Werwie is canny in the way it keeps Bundy front and center, but avoids until the very, very end showing him committing any violent acts. We never see him strangling or raping or decapitating or defiling the bodies of any of his victims, which plants the tiniest seed of suggestion in the viewer’s mind—which is utterly irrational, yet oddly compelling—that Bundy is the innocent he claims himself to be. After all, just like Liz, all we see is a handsome, charming, intriguing, and attractive character who doesn’t seem capable of inflicting any kind of harm, much less the wicked, shockingly evil, and vile acts for which he was eventually convicted and condemned to the electric chair.
In this regard, Zac Efron’s performance as Bundy is key, and he delivers a tour-de-force, using the chiseled good looks that made him a teen heartthrob in the early 2000s with the Disney High School Musical franchise and wielding it as a shield against everything we know about him. We like our monsters to look monstrous because they’re easier to loathe and reject that way; Efron cuts through all that by channeling Bundy’s disarming charisma, so we can’t blame Liz for falling in love with him and staying by his side even when he’s being accused of horrific acts, nor can we blame Carole Ann Bonne (Kaya Scodelario), the woman who gets involved with Bundy after Liz stops taking his calls and supporting him at his trials. Efron uses his flinty blue eyes primarily to turn on the charm, but there are a few moments, especially near the end, when they go dark and glowering, indicating not the monster inside, but the utter emptiness—the void into which his victims fell prey.
And, if that had been what Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile had set out to do, we could label it an unqualified success, but unfortunately, such is not the case. Instead, we have to grapple with the role played by Liz, who is ostensibly intended to be the center of the story, but often gets sidelined. Lily Collins (last seen as the doomed Fantine in the TV mini-series Les Misérables) tries to invest Liz with a deep sense of relatable insecurity and flawed humanity, but we know so little about her outside her relationship with Bundy that she never stands out as her own character. We see he grappling with the fallout, turning to alcohol before relying on her best friend Joanna (Angela Sarafyan) and, later, a genial, soft-hearted co-worker-turned-boyfriend named Jerry (Haley Joel Osment), but it all feels like a subplot that merely keeps the wheels spinning while we wait for Bundy to show up again. This lapse is not enough to turn the film into a failure—it is simply too intriguing in its own right and Efron is too magnetic to ignore—but it does suggest that the film could have been something much more daring and unconventional.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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