Why was Ted Bundy?
That’s the question I wanted an answer to from Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the decently anticipated biopic on the infamous serial murderer that debuted on Netflix this weekend. The best biopics don’t necessarily retell events as they happened; that’s what documentaries are for. Instead, they use those events to offer a window into who their subject was, beneath the public assumptions and official records. Many moments of biopics are often highly fictionalized, but the insight into the why – why they are deserving of such treatment – is the truth that matters most.
For much of Extremely Wicked’s runtime, there is no insight. If it exists, it’s buried beneath a narrative so muddled and messy that at least it has the decency to be relatively brief. Ted Bundy should be a goldmine of a character study. He was a man who committed some of the most heinous crimes ever prosecuted, and commanded media attention and even some public adoration for his purported good looks and disarming personality. He had two women in love with him to the point of life-destructive delusion. Instead of tugging on any of those threads, Extremely Wicked is an incomplete book report, exchanging compelling exploration for a workman-like checklist of various moments through the final stretch of Bundy’s reign of terror and his bizarre trials. The film hops between these scenes without an interesting thread tying them together, and the scenes themselves don’t feel especially memorable; in fact, some are downright boring.
It doesn’t help that Extremely Wicked fakes the audience out from the very beginning. It opens with Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins) visiting Bundy (Zac Efron) in jail, asking if he remembered the first day they met. The film sets up Bundy’s story through Kendall’s eyes, and suggests it will examine his deadly charisma from the perspective of the one closest to him. They even have a meet-cute, although Bundy’s off-putting intensity from the beginning makes you wonder how she couldn’t see the blaring red alarms firing off above his head from the very beginning. The film should’ve kept the framing device, examining Bundy’s horrifying crimes through his ostensibly sweet relationship with Kendall and her daughter. Instead, it goes all-in on Bundy, following him through his initial incarceration, his first trial, his second incarceration, his second trial, his multiple escape attempts, and his final trial, where finally justice caught up with him. It’s as tedious as it sounds; even when something of genuine interest happens, it feels rote. All of this focus on Bundy and we can only glean his steadfast commitment to his delusions, and his innate ability to manipulate vulnerable women. But you can gather that from a Wikipedia entry, or director Joe Berlinger’s other Ted Bundy project on Netflix, Conversations of a Killer.
What we don’t understand enough is the source of his descent to evil, what made him this way. Extremely Wicked makes an explicit effort to not show any of Bundy’s crimes. The decision to not exploit Bundy’s victims by recreating their gruesome murders is admirable, but it might’ve offered glimpses into his brutality and how it manifested. If that was beyond reach, Extremely Wicked could’ve at least sought explanations why the women in his life – Kendall, and his future child’s mother Carol – were so loyal to him, even amidst irrefutable evidence to his villainy. Instead, we occasionally see Kendall crumble into alcoholism and depression and denial, with little introspection into why. And Carol, well she seems fine with Bundy giving her passing glances. That is a damnably hollow characterization for a man who was capable of such inhumanity, and the women that loved him.
The closest we get to something resembling insight is in the film’s final stretch, a continuation of that very first scene between Bundy and Kendall. Here, Extremely Wicked pulls in close and gives us a glimpse into Bundy’s sociopathy. It’s a remarkable, unsettling scene that comes too late, but suggests what could’ve been. It also best utilizes the talents of its two leads, Lily Collins and Zac Efron. Collins spends much of the film as a tentative, unraveling ghost. Here, her devastation is channelled into something more focused and interesting. Efron had better material throughout the film, and was fully committed to capturing Bundy’s potently fatal charm, almost too well. In this scene’s close-ups, Efron’s eyes hold a complicated mix of desperation, pain, and even love, before those all melt away and reveal the stunningly cold, clinical killer. More moments like these could’ve vaulted Efron into the awards conversation. Instead, he must work with the limited material he’s given; to his credit, it’s the best work he’s ever done.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile may have a heavy title, but it’s light everywhere else it matters. The film’s lack of perspective, insight, or point of view on Ted Bundy leaves it feeling perfunctory instead of a definitive account of this notorious person. Extremely Wicked’s missed opportunities run as rampant as Bundy does throughout, and it’s less frustrating as it is unfortunate. Even if Ted Bundy deserves nothing more than the electric currents that ended his evil, the least we could’ve gotten was why.