Making a dramatized account of a real-life serial killer runs the risks of further sensationalizing their gruesome murders and inadvertently contributing to a culture that idolizes violent sociopaths as being tortured, misunderstood souls who went down a dark path, downplaying the severity of their crimes, and turning them into an icon. The truth about Ted Bundy is that in actuality, there is nothing that separates him from any other random anonymous murderer out there. He used his charm, wit, and looks to manipulate women into trusting him before brutally bludgeoning, raping, murdering, and dismembering his victims. None of this sounds too dissimilar to the tactics or methods of any other nameless serial killer you would hear about on the nightly news, and yet his name is still remembered among the most well-known serial killers in history.
What is it about his case that makes him stand out? Could it be that Bundy’s image as a charming, handsome young man so drastically contrasts with the typical image of a serial killer that we all collectively have? Is it because the sheer number of victims that he murdered exponentially exceeds the number that we normally see from the average serial killer? Could it be because his trial was the first nationally televised murder trial in America? It could be a combination of all of those factors and then some, but unfortunately Joe Berlinger’s narrative feature film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile – the follow-up to his Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, is not as interested in delving deeper into any of these questions or into Bundy as a person for that matter, as it is with painting him as the sympathetic figure that he wanted the world to see him as, which in and of itself could be described as being “Extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile”.
The film wants to pretend as if the story is really from the perspective of his longtime girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), but it is irrefutable that the majority of screen time is spent with Zac Efron as Bundy, and that her perspective gets sidelined the further that the film progresses. The crisis of conscience that she undergoes as a grief-stricken single mother having to come to terms with the fact that the man she thought she loved was a monster all along, and her moral obligation to forgive herself and set things right, is an interesting angle that we never really explore in stories like this. Unfortunately, she isn’t given much of a voice to express these truths that she had known about him until her final scene where she confronts Ted, and until that point, she’s only depicted as delusional and in denial about the obvious crimes of her former lover. If the film had truly been from her point of view, allowing us to discover things as she had, and understand what she was feeling throughout this ordeal, it would have made for a stronger protagonist.
In theory, one admirable decision made in the telling of this story is that the film doesn’t ever indulge in, or even show on screen, Bundy’s murders. It avoids exploiting the graphic violence of these true stories, which many other films might be tempted to depict, and Berlinger does deserve some credit for not approaching the material from that angle. However, because so much of this film only focuses on the sympathetic aspects of Bundy’s character and never wants to confront the horrors of what he actually did until the very end, the majority of the film ends up painting him as a traditional protagonist. In moments such as when he escapes from the courthouse, the scene is set to the tune of The Box Tops song “The Letter”, an upbeat 1960’s pop rock song with lyrics such as “Lonely days are gone, I’m goin’ home” and “Listen, mister, can’t you see I got to get back to my baby once more”. The use of this song for a scene where a real-life serial killer escaped custody makes it feel as if it’s supposed to be a light-hearted triumphant moment for the viewers.
During the trials, Bundy is made to be seen as the scrappy underdog going up against the system that’s trying to frame him, making the judges and the opposing lawyers look like the typical stuck-up establishment squares that would normally be the villains of an 80’s teen comedy. At the end when he is found guilty and receives his sentence, the camera dramatically pulls into his face as tears stream down his cheek, sad music plays, and the judge’s words quietly fade into the background, as if we are supposed to feel bad about what is happening to him. Zac Efron does manage to give a fairly convincing performance as Bundy, working his naturally devilish charm in order to embody the notorious madman, but in refusing to show any interactions with Bundy and his victims, how he was able to work his charms on them and why that made him a more dangerous threat, the film itself manages to fall for his charm in the same exact way.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile feels like the movie that Ted Bundy would have wanted to be made about himself. It gives him the spotlight over those that he harmed and attempts to garner sympathy for him, giving only a minimal admission of guilt shoehorned in at the end. Given Berlinger’s history with the Bundy case and the extensive amounts of research that he has devoted to it, it’s unlikely that it was his intention to paint Bundy as a sympathetic figure, but these peculiar storytelling decisions don’t really do any favors for making it seem as if it’s anything but.