Movie Review: ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’

Director: Joe Berlinger

Cast: Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donavon, Dylan Baker, Jim Parsons, Haley Joel Osment

Plot: Law student Ted Bundy is arrested following a traffic stop and quickly comes under suspicion as the perpetrator of multiple horrifying murders. As his court cases and prison time drag on his fiancee, Liz, begins to unravel.

Review: This highly anticipated inspired-by-true-events film arrived on Netflix after a surprising amount of hype. This was in part due to the success of the recent Netflix documentary The Ted Bundy Tapes, but mostly from shocked, appalled and incredulous gossip columnists who fixated entirely on the casting of former Disney star Zac Efron as the notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. As we all know Efron rose to fame in the High School Musical movies and actors are only allowed to play one role each. What did you think acting was, pretending to be other people? We personally though Efron was an excellent choice. Beyond the similarity in their appearance Efron has the easy charm that made Bundy notable in canon of modern killers. It is a role that is going to come under scrutiny, so let’s find out if he’s up to the challenge.

The central premise of the movie focuses on the relationship between Bundy and Liz (Collins), a single mother who met Bundy in a bar and began a relationship, eventually becoming engaged. When a highway patrol officer pulls Bundy over and discovers suspicious items in his car, Bundy becomes linked to a series of grisly murders and begins down the path towards becoming one of the most notorious figures of the 20th century. As we see Bundy appear in court several times, work his own defence, take up a new lover and escape prison twice we see Liz fall into severe depression and alcoholism before finding the strength to move on with her life.

Whilst the movie is pitched as being about Liz they either got lost along the way or entirely missed the point, as Liz always feels like a side-plot to another, bigger story. Whether because it’s the more interesting part of the history or because they realised that Efron had something good going on, the vast bulk of the run time is dedicated to Bundy and his trails. Liz’s story is mostly told in dot point format, just giving us the major details and never exploring the journey in between them. Bundy was known for his wild behaviour and showboating during his trails and this almost feels as though the film-makers got suckered into his routine and decided this was the real story.

On the subject of Bundy and Efron, it’s his performance that makes this film work. He’s captured what it is that made Bundy such a terrifying figure. The calm demeanour and effortless charm made it difficult for people, even veteran serial killer crime writer Ann Rule, to consider Bundy capable of such acts. That said, the film-makers don’t do anything to convince us that this wasn’t stunt casting when they also have Jim ‘Sheldon’ Parson’s cast as the prosecutor who dryly reads out details of Bundy’s crimes, Haley Joel Osment playing Liz’s new love interest and the perplexing and distracting choice of Metallica frontman James Hetfield in the small but crucial role of the officer who arrested Bundy. Not that any of them do a poor job, it’s just hard to imagine they were cast for any reason other than to generate buzz.

When Extremely Wicked… made its debut is was met with middling reviews, with some commenting that Efron’s performance is the only positive. We suspect that this is a backlash against the expectation that this is an insight in to a serial killer rather than a courtroom drama. Bundy’s courtroom shenanigans are certainly a story unto itself, and the film’s decision to not focus on the nature of his crimes works in its favour. We get put in the position of one learning of events as they were revealed at the time, with descriptions of his actions only being discussed in court late in the film with the only strong impact recreations saved until the emotional peak of the third act.

As said, we kinda suspect the casting got a bit carried away in trying to be controversial but it proves effective, and this aspect of the Bundy story is fascinating. The attention to period detail helps create an engaging story only let down by the indecision as to what it wants to be.

Rating: SEVEN out of TEN