Sundance 2019: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, by David Bax
Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile ultimately fails in its mission to provide the viewer with anything deeper or broader than an adaptation of what they’d uncover in a Google search. But it does deserve credit for respectfully avoiding the temptation to be salacious. With only one brief, powerful, and well-timed exception, Ted Bundy’s crimes are not dramatized onscreen; the description of them by police and prosecutors is powerful enough on its own to horrify.
Zac Efron stars as Bundy and Lily Collins, in nearly equal screentime, plays Liz, the woman to whom Bundy was engaged to be married when he was first arrested for his atrocious murders. Extremely Wicked begins with their courtship and then proceeds, more as a legal and courtroom drama than anything else, through Bundy’s arrests, trials and escapes.
Thus Efron plays Bundy not as he might have been while murdering young women but as he was in front of people he wasn’t planning to kill; cops, lawyers, judges, reporters, cameras, Liz. In other words, Efron is playing a character who is constantly playing a character, the charming law student who insisted on his innocence for (very nearly) his entire life. Collins, meanwhile, plays Liz as someone who, for a long time, denies what the evidence is telling her not because she believes so deeply in Bundy but because she can’t confront the fact that she was duped by him.
It’s a shame, then, that the screenplay by Michael Werwie is unwilling to clasp hands with these performers and wade into the depths. Extremely Wicked lights from scene to scene, mostly providing only superficial glances at the situational facts. It’s not until far into the movie, when Liz’s character arc begins to seriously curve, that layers begin to form but, by then, it’s too late.
Alongside the end titles, Berlinger shows us real news footage of scenes we just got done seeing recreated. It gives us a chance, I suppose, to appreciate the mimicry skills of Efron, Kevin McClatchy as a Florida sheriff, John Malkovich as the judge in Bundy’s final trial and others (the impressive cast also includes Angela Sarafyan, Jeffrey Donovan, Dylan Baker, Kaya Scodelario, Haley Joel Osment, Brian Geraghty and Jim Parsons). But it also may shed some light on why so much of Extremely Wicked feels so rushed; perhaps it’s all just a commercial for Berlinger’s documentary version of the same story, already available for you to watch.