Director: Joe Berlinger
Stars: Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario
You go through dating apps (don’t judge me), and a surprising number of people will list “watching serial killer documentaries” among their hobbies. We’re fascinated. We can’t help ourselves and we’re very open about it. What motivates these murderers? What creates or changes them? Where is the line between us and them? How different are we, really?
I’m not suggesting that people who enjoy watching serial killer documentaries are potential serial killers. But there’s an undeniable dark magnetism at work here; a grim fascination with the most sinister corners of human nature. I’m as culpable. Films like The Silence Of The Lambs, Se7en and Zodiac are among my favourites in popular cinema. Joe Berlinger is a seasoned documentary filmmaker. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile marks something of a departure (akin to Bart Layton’s transition from The Imposter to American Animals). He trades testimonials for dramatic reconstruction for this tale of Ted Bundy’s trial(s) for the murders of several women in multiple states. And his star is Zac Efron.
Efron has played hard into his pretty-boy appearance several times over, appearing in bimbo roles for comedies like Bad Neighbours and Baywatch, but his resumé also shows the potential for greater dexterity (absurd trashfire The Paperboy is a curious outlier). His work here as Bundy manages to play a little into both camps. Berlinger’s film goes to great lengths to paint Bundy as warm and charismatic, able to use these qualities to his advantage. That American jaw line and wide smile open doors for Bundy. Doors that ought to have remained shut. The tempo of the piece is uncomfortably close to that of The Wolf Of Wall Street. Efron never speaks to camera; there is no narration. Still, at times the piece feels like a creeping endorsement for a lovable rogue.
The intention in doing so is to underscore the dangerous charisma of a predator, but it plays perilously close to glamorisation. Berlinger dares to sympathise heavily with Bundy, who protests his innocence as he escapes from custody (more than once), who plays up to the press and describes himself in close conversation as “more popular than Disneyworld”. He seems sincere about his innocence, yet his actions lack sincerity. More surprisingly, it strongly suggests a miscarriage of justice.
The abductions and murders themselves are kept out of the narrative almost completely (though Jim Parsons’ prosecution lawyer mentions minor details and a late scene opens old wounds). Their absence makes Extremely Wicked more palatable, but maybe that’s not a good thing? By distancing the deeds from the narrative, Berlinger lessens their import. These harsh realities might spoil the light footed party. And yet, Efron is an eminently watchable presence. He buoys the film along, as Berlinger reveals his piece as more of a courtroom comedy that a dark thriller.
Famously, Bundy’s Florida trial was the first to be televised in American history. In keeping, Berlinger effectively conjures the sense of a media circus, and of the top coming off of the ketchup bottle. Bundy becomes his own greatest showman, representing himself and taking to the courtroom floor like an actor on a stage. John Malkovich’s Judge Edward D. Cowart tempers him, but Extremely Wicked also suggests that even he plays to the pantomime unfurling before him.
This is a film about persona. About facades. Bundy’s is fascinating. The gall of it. But what lies beneath that mask is left unexplored, hidden from view. Efron suggests it on occasion, but these moments are but flickers in a piece far more enamoured by the craziness of public trial. This is a reconstruction of tabloid sleaze and salacious headlines and it ends, troublingly, on those terms, reveling in provocative soundbites.