It’s official. Netflix has a Ted Bundy fetish. A few months ago the streamer dropped a documentary using actual interviews with the killer as well as news reports from the era.
This time around in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, we get a dramatized version of the murderer. Sort of.
We meet Ted, played by Zac Efron, before the killing spree (or at least before the killings we know of) began. He meets Liz (Lily Collins) in a bar, they hit it off, hook up, and become soul mates. Awww.
The relationship is tested when Bundy is tried for many crimes in many states. That’ll do it. His story has been told over and over across the decades. This movie appears to have promise because it seems like it’s going to give us the view from someone else, Liz. They did actually date for about six years and he was a father figure to her young daughter.
But the romance storyline, like the romance itself, gets blotted out by the lurid details of the crimes. In the end this becomes a dramatized version of the Ted Bundy story.
The director seems to think he’s absolved himself from unoriginal story telling by never showing us the murders. We never see him plotting or kidnapping or mutilating. Efron plays Ted like someone who represses their crimes, and by truly believing in his innocence, hope others will believe him too.
But this doesn’t fly. It’s just unfocused storytelling. Is it Liz’s story? Is it Ted’s? At some point a third of the way through the film, it becomes a retelling of old newspaper articles and a spot-on impersonation of Bundy.
Zac is amazing as Ted. He oozes charm. His abs are fab. The hair? Don’t get me started. But he didn’t captivate me. While I never thought I was watching Zac Efron play the role of Ted Bundy, I never really was grabbed by the performance. Watching it at home, I was all too easily distracted by incoming texts and e-mails.
As for Liz, she gets lost in the shuffle. They bring her back at the end to get closure and absolution. But it feels like a forced climax and wholly unsatisfying.
This was originally supposed to be a wide theatrical release, until Netflix wrote a check with enough zeros to buy it for themselves. They did us all a favor. There is no reason to see this on a big screen. In fact, I think the shortcomings would be even more glaring.
Banality of Evil
Perhaps the director was trying to show us how evil can unknowingly slip into our lives. Truly evil and vile people don’t ooze evil and vile out their pores while drooling. No, they blend in. They charm us. They manipulate us into doing their bidding, while we think it was our idea in the first place.
I’m guessing that could be the message. Again, the film is so unfocused that I have to give it my best guess.
And if that is the message, we didn’t need a Ted Bundy rehash to make it. The movie is like evil: banal.
Imitation is Sincere Flattery
Also making appearances is John Malkovich as the Florida trial judge and Jim Parsons as the Miami prosecutor. Malkovich is great in anything and everything (go watch him in Billions on Showtime) he does. He looks and sounds nothing like the actual judge, but he reads the judge’s words from the trial and his demeanor and presence make up for it.
Parsons looks more like his real life counterpart, but is sorely underused in a role that isn’t even that important.
As I said, Efron is a Bundy doppelgänger. The looks, the movement, the cadence. You can tell he spent serious time learning the mechanics of the character.
As if to pat themselves on the back for their Xerox performances, the credits play video of the actual trial and show us how the characters were mirror images of their subjects.
That’s great. But it’s neither original or compelling.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
Gin & Juice. Gin because like this movie, it’s hard to swallow. Juice because that’s what Ted Bundy got in the end.