Director: Joe Berlinger
Cast: Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, John Malkovich, Angela Sarafyan
Runtime: 1 hr 50 mins
Rating: M18 (Sexual Scene)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Official Website: https://www.facebook.com/ExtremelyWickedShockinglyEvilAndVile/
Opening Day: 23 May 2019
Synopsis: Single mother Liz (Lily Collins) thinks she’s found the man of her dreams in Ted (Zac Efron). But their seemingly perfect life is turned upside down when Ted is arrested on suspected kidnapping charges, then linked to murders in multiple states. Adamant that he's being framed, the former law student theatrically defends himself in America’s first nationally televised trial while Liz struggles to come to terms with the truth. Adapted from the nonfiction memoir by Elizabeth Kendall (aka Liz Kloepfer) EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE recounts how she was manipulated for years by a seemingly adoring boyfriend, yet future death row inmate, Ted Bundy.
If you’ve heard of the name Ted Bundy, you’ve probably seen a documentary or film about him. Arguably one of the most notorious serial killers in the 20th century, Bundy’s story has been retold in no less than seven feature films, so it is only reasonable to ask if writer/ director Joe Berlinger’s tale would offer anything new. Thankfully, the short answer to that question is yes, although we suspect some viewers may not be entirely comfortable with how Berlinger has approached this real-life tragedy.
Even though it takes its title from the description of Bundy offered by the judge at his sentencing verdict, ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ isn’t a blow-by-blow account of his heinous crimes; rather, Berlinger chooses to base his reading on the memoir of Bundy’s girlfriend Elizabeth Knopfler (Lily Collins). A single mom living in Seattle, Liz had met Bundy in a bar, fallen in love with him, and invited him to move in with her and her young daughter; in fact, he had so charmed both mother and daughter that Liz was prepared to marry him, until of course their lives were changed irrevocably when Ted is first arrested in Utah.
From that point on up until the very last day before his execution, Liz would not see Ted again, and their only contact would be through Ted’s occasional phone calls or letters while in jail. But these years would prove to be a living hell for Liz, who would struggle with reconciling the disconnect between the man she loved and the killer that the police and media were making him out to be. The truth is that he was both, and it is this seemingly inexplicable dichotomy that the movie explores, without ever demonstrating a single act of Bundy’s violent nature, save for punching a police officer to escape a traffic stop.
As peculiar as that may sound, Berlinger hews as closely to Liz’s perspective as possible in his storytelling. At no point was Ted aggressive towards Liz, which made it even more difficult for her to understand how he could be the perpetrator of the terrible acts of violence which he was accused of. Even when the narrative switches inevitably to tell of how Ted escapes custody by jumping out of an open window during a trial recess, or cutting a hole in the ceiling of his prison cell to break out of prison, or sweet-talking an old friend Carole (Kaya Scoledario) into joining his defence efforts, Berlinger stridently avoids portraying any of Ted’s crimes in their monstrosity, so as not to prejudice the point of view through which the story is intended to be told.
The focus here is instead on Ted’s charisma, manipulative nature and bad-boy good looks, which the casting of Zac Efron as Bundy is a master stroke. Putting his good looks to great use, Efron is magnetic, belligerent and self-aggrandising in equal measure, convincing you of the spell that Ted must have cast over countless women that he had met, both the ones whom could not live without them and the ones whom could not live past him. It is a scene-chewing performance all right, and Efron commits fully to it (he has an executive producer credit no less) without ever turning it into caricature or lionising Bundy.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s final third, which depicts Ted’s murder trial in Florida in its absurdist glory. In the Tallahassee judge Edward T. Cowart’s (John Malkovich) courtroom, Ted seizes the opportunity to try to turn the tide of public opinion in his favour over the first nationally televised trial in American history, by dismissing his state-appointed counsel and assuming his own defence in a blue blazer and big dark bowtie. These scenes are juxtaposed with Liz’s anguish watching Ted on live television, for which she finds comfort in a loyal co-worker Jerry (Haley Joel Osment), who eventually coaxes her to forgive herself for an instinctive act many years ago that led the police to Ted in the first place.
We won’t deny that some viewers may find it frustrating, even upsetting, that Liz is in such denial, or that the film seems to bask in Ted’s smooth-talking charm; yet, it is also this same artistic choice that Berlinger has taken which gives a fresh spin to an otherwise familiar retelling. Though there was little subtlety in his crimes, Berlinger chooses an utterly nuanced way of conveying Ted’s evil, through a penultimate scene that sees Liz visiting Ted in prison right before he is set to go to the electric chair begging him to tell her the truth.
So for a film about Ted Bundy titled ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’, you’ll probably be surprised that it never does go to any sort of extremities in portraying its subject. Yet, like we said, the very deliberate decision to withhold depiction of Ted’s crimes is intended to reinforce the perspective through which this real-life horror is being seen, and let’s just say it is no less justified or realistic. You should know too that Berlinger had simultaneously shot a four-hour Netflix documentary named ‘Conversations with a Killer’, which should be your choice if you prefer a more straightforward chronicle; otherwise, you might find this narrative feature a refreshingly alternate lens into a fascinating but deeply troubling character.
(Coupled with a mesmering turn by Zac Efron, this alternate view on one of the most notorious serial killers in recent memory is a fascinating chronicle of evil in disguise)
Review by Gabriel Chong