Release: Friday, May 3, 2019 (limited)
Written by: Michael Werwie
Directed by: Joe Berlinger
Starring: Zac Efron; Lily Collins; Kaya Scodelario; Angela Sarafyan; Haley Joel Osment; Jim Parsons; John Malkovich; James Hetfield
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile may appear on the surface as a redundant exercise. Do we really need another take on the American nightmare that was Ted Bundy? Like it or not we have come to know the man behind at least 30 murders of women down to his jaw structure, down to the most grisly details of his most heinous actions. We’ve even taken note of his days working as a call taker at a suicide prevention center in Seattle.
Extremely Wicked justifies its own existence through the harrowing perspective it shares, that of Bundy’s longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer. The dramatic feature from highly influential documentarian Joe Berlinger is based upon the memoir written by the real Kloepfer (Kendall her pen name), and paints a picture of domestic bliss slowly rotting, one in which its stars, a chillingly effective Zac Efron and an equally impressive Lily Collins, dance delicately along a clearly defined yet precarious line dividing dramatization and reenactment. These are challenging roles to portray without sensationalizing, and with the guidance of Berlinger’s sensitive direction they rarely, if ever, hit a false note.
The one exception being the way the former High School Musical star interprets his character’s reaction to the final sentencing, Efron putting on a waterworks display that feels out of sync with his character’s alien-like indifference to the lives he took. The tears are a little too theatrical even considering the antics that went down in those trials. Indeed those trials were a circus in which you might recall Bundy throwing out his own defense team and acting as his own legal counsel, even having the audacity to take advantage of an obscure Florida law that allowed him to propose during his second murder trial (in 1980) to witness Carol Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario in the movie) — a former coworker at that Seattle crisis center, a stalwart of Team “Of Course I’m Innocent, Look at Me!” all the way up to the point of their divorce in 1986, three years before Bundy’s execution.
Scodelario does well to garner our sympathy — she’s nothing more than another victim, albeit a lucky one, of Bundy’s brutally manipulative mind-game. But if Boone was just played for a fool, Kloepfer was essentially a concubine of Bundy’s deceitful charade, her heart held hostage by a smooth talking, intelligent predator. In one of the movie’s heaviest moments we see all of that come down on her, the reality that she had blindly allowed a serial rapist and murderer to help raise her own child, Molly. He, in return, secured the unconditional love of an innocent child. It’s upsetting stuff. As time marches on Collins’ performance becomes more gesticulative and broad, Liz disappearing in a haze of cigarette smoke and alcohol-fueled depression as her own concern turns to fear and tensions between the two continue to mount as the lie continues, evolves. Yet her work is never less than sickeningly effective in communicating how trapped this woman must have felt, pinned between a romantic idyll of the man she’s with and the ugly reality of his face routinely showing up in the papers.
It’s the intense focus on this relationship, on a perception of normalcy that also justifies Extremely Wicked‘s stylistic choices, namely the omission of graphic violence and even the abductions themselves. We more often than not see Bundy fleeing the scene in his beige VW beetle and in a calm, cool and collected state even in the face of suspicious lawmen. (Side note: if you thought the casting of Efron, a known sex symbol, was an interesting choice, A) you’ve missed the point completely and B) it’s not as weird as seeing Metallica’s physically imposing frontman James Hetfield as Officer Bob Hayward, a Utah patrolman and the first officer to arrest Bundy. It’s a double-take moment, yet the casting isn’t completely out of left field, as Berlinger co-directed the Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster, back in 2004. And for what it’s worth, he acquits himself well in his first ever scripted performance.)
Berlinger is no stranger to potentially upsetting and controversial material. His Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries exposed a terrible real-world witch hunt that had condemned three young men either to execution or life in prison for a crime in which they ultimately were found innocent. Yet his work has also had a profound, real-world impact. The release of those films actually expedited the release of at least one of those men in the West Memphis Three case. I’m not so sure this film has had the same sobering effect. More of film Twitter seemed to get hung up on the hunky casting (again, by design) and whether or not Efron even had it in him to convince you of Bundy’s extreme wickedness (he does).
Rather than trampling on the victims’ memory by dramatizing their last moments alive, Berlinger instead focuses on the emotional and psychological disintegration of Kloepfer who for so long denies the deranged duplicitousness that allowed her boyfriend to freely move in between their shared sanctuary and the streets of an unsuspecting America as he engaged in a spree of murders that, at its height, saw women disappearing at a rate of one every 30 days. Extremely Wicked is a film about juxtaposition, the seemingly impossible contrast between sweet naivete and outright monster. It leaves you feeling dirty. Violated. It’s a disturbing account of factual events that needs little graphic imagery to convey the evil and the vile.
Moral of the Story: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (which takes its long-winded title from the official opinion handed down by the judge presiding over the trial, the Honorable Edward Cowart, played by John Malkovich) I’d imagine works pretty well as a companion piece to the documentary. Me, though, I’ve had my fill with this drama. Biggest takeway: the performances are uniformly good and some truly unsettling. I never thought I’d say I would be scared of Zac Efron. (Some offense intended.) Film also features strong input from Haley Joel Osment as one of Liz’s concerned coworkers, and Jim Parsons as a Florida attorney tasked with presenting some of the most disgusting details you’ll probably ever hear from this particular horror show.
Running Time: 110 mins.
Quoted: “People don’t realize that murderers do not come out in the dark with long teeth and saliva dripping off their chin. People don’t realize that there are killers among them. People they liked, loved, lived with, work with and admired could the next day turn out to be the most demonic people imaginable.”
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