Starring Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, Haley Joel Osment, Jim Parsons. Directed by Joe Berlinger.
A year or so ago, we reviewed a film called My Friend Dahmer, which was about the friendship between notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and John ‘Derf’ Backderf. It came from his own graphic novel, which by all accounts didn’t paint himself in that positive a light. Perhaps guilty over his own high school attitude and not seeing the signs that he was taking advantage of an abused kid with mental issues, Derf, as he calls himself, clearly had a lot of guilt to wrestle with. That was a sort of pre-serial killer story, examining the lead up to the murders from the eyes of someone who was close to them.
In Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, which is not a title that trips off the tongue, we see the crimes of notorious lady killer Ted Bundy, but as told by his then partner Liz Kendall. The difference here is that this film is taking place during his reign of terror, and shows the difference between his killing and his home life.
Berlinger has previous with Bundy, having also made the incredibly binge-worthy The Bundy Tapes. Here Berlinger is doing a dramatised version of the story (much like how Werner Herzog made the documentary Little Dieter needs to Fly and then Rescue Dawn, both about a German-American pilot held prisoner during the early years of the Vietnam War) that purports to be more about Bundy’s relationship with Liz Kendall than it does about his notoriety.
There’s a lot of trust that goes into a film being made about a serial killer; doing a “true story” can be tricky anyway, but Berlinger clearly knows the story inside and out, but sadly assumes we are all up to date on our Bundy lore. This problem reveals itself more in the first half of the film, which is by and large a mess of different times and jumps that can never decide exactly what the film wants to be.
There’s clearly attention to detail and a bid, for the most part, to be as close to what happened as possible, and it’s amiable that Berlinger has little interest in showing the gory mutilation of girls – however, the film is from Bundy’s perspective, and not Kendall’s. This is a big issue, and one the film can’t always get over.
For those unaware, Liz Kendall was a young single working mother who met Ted Bundy on a night out and they hit it off, she remained a vague constant in his life for a long time despite distancing herself from his when it started to become clear he was guilty of these crimes. In the film Lily Collins is Kendall and Zac Efron is Bundy, both of whom play their roles very well.
But, the main flaw of the film is that it plays way too much as a film in which Bundy is the main character, and thus Kendall becomes a supporting player. The film should have been told from the perspective of Kendall, and by and large played out much like a classic romantic tale for a portion of the runtime, so that when the arrests, escapes and the eventual realisation hits, it hits much harder.
The film, in fact, really only kicks into gear once the court case begins. Efron does a fantastic job of playing the charming, yet arrogant Bundy, but is perhaps just a tad too movie star to be Bundy (he’s considered handsome but only by virtue of most serial killers being hideous), and his assumptions, arrogance and rants show the various personalities bubbling beneath the surface, that Efron commands such presence despite having spent the last few years in Bad Neighbours, Dirty Grandpa and Baywatch is a surprise and proof that he is a proper actor. Collins too is able to show years of guilt and resentment by just raising one of those eyebrows of hers.
John Malkovich is also very good as the stern but somehow intrigued judge, whose closing summary gives the film it’s title. The courtroom scenes show the hysteria and the hype around this case and could have given Collins a lot more work to be done instead of looking teary eyed at a TV.
While some may critique casting heartthrob Efron as Bundy it makes sense, Bundy was able to charm people, clearly he charmed the judge whose closing statements are filled with sympathy, and loss, his mother, Liz and his wife Carol Ann (Kaya Scodelario), whom he marries in court as onlookers watch.
There is one grave misstep towards the end where a revelation is punctuated by an act of violence that seems out-of-the-scene and a little salacious for a film that has been surprisingly subtle, but once again that shows that the film isn’t entirely sure what it wants to be, what it wants to focus on.
And yet by the end we are as seduced by Efron as the victims and court were by Bundy. So that when it comes time for the judge to say those now infamous words: “Take care of yourself, young man. I say that to you sincerely; take care of yourself. It is an utter tragedy for this court to see such a total waste of humanity, I think, as I’ve experienced in this courtroom. You’re a bright young man. You’d have made a good lawyer and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. I don’t feel any animosity toward you. I want you to know that. Take care of yourself.”
Those words will ring in the ears of everyone who had doubt, and who watch this, that there was potential in him and the film knows this, but since the film lacks focus we never find out why he killed women, why he was so violent, or why Liz got away without a bruise on her person.
All we get, for now, is the best work by Efron yet.