Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)
Director: Joe Berlinger
Writer: Elizabeth Kendall (based on the book by), Michael Werwie
Starring: Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, John Malkovich, Jim Parsons, Haley Joel Osment
The latest original production from Sky Cinemas takes on the shocking story of one of the USA's (and perhaps the world's) most notorious serial killers Ted Bundy, portrayed in this meticulous biopic by Zac Efron, as he takes a brave and ambitious step into a new area for his career. Following several controversial trailers which hinted at the potential glorification of Bundy and his crimes, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile luckily manages to side-step that trap and offer a taut and detailed account of Bundy's final years.
The biopic sub-genre is home to some of the film industry's greatest entries, with some of history's greatest or most infamous individuals brought to life and dissected in a variety of innovative ways. This latest biopic devoted to Ted Bundy, however, is unlikely to be revered amongst the greats, but nor does it belong down with the runts of the litter. Mostly well conceived and executed, Extremely Wicked is a clean and entertaining biographical drama documenting a historical trial and execution, but offers little of anything new or fresh, either cinematically or historically.
Extremely Wicked's first problem is one of construction, and is luckily dealt with quite swiftly. Presumably in an attempt to be narratively creative, Extremely Wicked seems to completely bungle its opening scenes. Our introduction to Bundy and and his new partner Elizabeth Kendall (played by Lily Collins) is presented in a largely incomprehensible fashion, as the film tries to juggle at least three timelines without offering any kind of assistance. Only after this frenetic opening does the film become straightforward, linear, and possible to follow. After this, the film works far better on a surface level. However, Extremely Wicked's main problem from this point on is one which lies far deeper.
Although the film's title forms their description, Extremely Wicked puts less focus on the crimes of Bundy, and more on the legal battle he underwent in an attempt to convince the world of his innocence. Any violence is largely referred to in the past tense, rather than shown to us, and it is rarely explicitly tied to Efron's character. There is a distinct separation between Bundy and the crimes of which he is being accused, placing the audience in the same unenviable position as the judge and jury back in the late 70s, requiring us to rely on the evidence alone. It superbly demonstrates how Bundy, through his charisma and ability, was able to fool so many people, as Efron's character, despite being arrogant and obviously temperamental, seems incapable of the unspeakable acts alluded to throughout the film.
Despite providing a superbly constructive external view of Bundy, the internal world of this particular serial killer remains largely unseen. Extremely Wicked is less of a character study and more of a simple chronicling of events. Any exploration of Bundy is limited, with any of the many scenes devoted to him doing more to document his actions rather than better understand them. Admittedly, right up to his execution Bundy remained an elusive and opaque individual, and so any attempt to probe through Bundy's calculating exterior through this film may have been speculation at best, or an exercise in futility at worst.
It is obvious early on in the film that Efron did some serious research for this role. Nailing both the mannerisms and speech of Bundy, Efron's portrayal consistently boasts a striking resemblance to the killer, capturing both his outward charisma and his more subtle intensity. Again, it is a shame that the film seems unable to delve deep into the mind of Bundy as, regardless of his commitment to the role, Efron is unable (likely through no fault of his own) to show us the man behind the mask of confidence and articulation that Bundy wore during most of his interactions.
Lily Collins offers an arguably more expressive performance as Elizabeth Kendall, the ex-fiancee of Ted Bundy, and author of the book on which much of this account is based. We largely witness the film through her eyes, and are given an extensive view of the impact of Bundy's lengthy legal proceedings of her throughout the film, the reason for which is only revealed in the final act. It is an emotional and often distraught performance she provides as she slowly begins to understand the extent of her partner's depravity and begins to wrestle with her own part in the story.
The rest of the cast offer solid if not unremarkable contributions, with John Malkovich as the sharp-tongued court judge who ordered Bundy's execution, and Haley Joel Osment as the awkward but caring friend to Lily Collins in the later part of the film. Kaya Scodelario perhaps offers the most significant performance after the two leads as the misguided Carole Ann Boone, the young woman fiercely committed to Bundy's innocence and release.
Despite a rocky start, Extremely Wicked demonstrates an astonishing attention to detail, with many scenes practically mirroring the real life footage from Bundy's trial, while the performances, particularly Efron's, manage to capture a likeness that ranges from startling to downright eerie. More documentary than character study however, Berlinger's polished and taut biopic still can't manage to find a way through Bundy's icy exterior, although not for a lack of trying.
In one line: Comprehensive and polished, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile presents as a carbon copy of Bundy's legal battle but, despite the committed and impassioned performances, offers little more than delineation of events as opposed to an exploration of character