Documentarian Joe Berlinger returns to features with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, chronicling the Ted Bundy murders and the trial that captured a nation. He debuts his new film just after making a four-part Netflix docuseries about…Ted Bundy. Perhaps, it’s time for Berlinger to cleanse himself with a comedy.
The movie opens from the point of view of Liz (Lily Collins), who catches the eye of a charming bartender and law student named Ted Bundy (Zac Efron). Ted quickly romances her with his overwhelming charisma. The film doesn’t waste time setting up their relationship, integrating Ted in Liz’s life with her daughter, Molly, and eventually, he moves in with them.
Their idyllic relationship is upended when Ted is arrested in connection to a kidnapping, which he assures Liz he did not do. Ted is persuasive about his innocence, but it becomes more difficult when girls in different states go missing, and officials connect the crimes back to Ted. No matter the charges, he stands firm about not being guilty, even mounting his own defense from jail.
“Their idyllic relationship is upended when Ted is arrested in connection to a kidnapping…”
Early parts of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile move quick and a bit haphazardly, taking us through many crucial points in the timeline, but becomes more streamlined in the latter half of the film. The movie shifts completely into Ted’s point of view, and he goes through lawyers, maintains his innocence and leads the courtroom in a media frenzy. Ted is perplexed as to why he is on trial for heinous crimes he claims to have not committed but rarely misses a chance to smile right into the camera.
Parts of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile are as clunky as the elongated title might suggest, but Berlinger makes several interesting choices to keep his film from being just another serial killer tale. A more conventional film would have settled on taking the audience through each murder for shock value, but there is only a small amount of depicted violence in the movie. Berlinger and screenwriter Michael Werwie refuse to sensationalize the murders in obvious ways but leave it to courtroom descriptions of what Ted did to unsettle us.
“…digs deep into Ted, weaponizing what made him famous to great effect…”
It’s certainly a surface-level look at times but Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile is fueled by Efron’s performance, which is unlike anything we’ve ever seen the actor do. Sure, he’s made a name and fanbase on his charm, but the actor has been trapped playing Neighbors-esque frat boys in far too many movies to prove he is capable of something deeper. He digs deep into Ted, weaponizing what made him famous to great effect. Lily Collins delivers her best work to date as Liz, showing how every lie, new allegation, and courtroom hearing takes more of a toll on her than it does Ted. There are strong turns from the rest of the supporting cast, including Jim Parsons as the prosecutor, John Malkovich as the judge, Haley Joel Osment as Liz’s new boyfriend and Kaya Scodelario as an old friend of Ted’s, who insists he’s telling the truth about the murders.
At times, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is all about the performances because the movie itself struggles a bit with settling on a tone. It certainly doesn’t make light of the subject at hand but incorporating obvious music cues on the lively soundtrack proves to be distracting. Even so, it’s still a fascinating exploration of how one evil person could fool some people into thinking he wasn’t capable of violent acts; it’s most interesting he was able to convince himself.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) Directed by Joe Berlinger. Written by Michael Werwie. Starring Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Jim Parsons, John Malkovich, Kaya Scodelario and Haley Joel Osment.
7 out of 10