It’s awfully hard to judge something like Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) on an objective level. It’s so wrongheaded in the portrayal of its subject, Ted Bundy, that it’s hard not to be infuriated with the film just on morals alone. Not that it’s a good movie with all that aside, but as something of a follow-up to the equally questionable Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019), also from Joe Berlinger, it leaves very much to be desired.
Based off a book written by Elizabeth Kendall (played in the movie by Liz Collins), Bundy’s girlfriend of several years, Extremely Wicked starts off from her perspective as she meets Ted Bundy (Zac Efron) meet in a college bar in 1969 and the two quickly strike up a romance. At first, Ted seems like the perfect boyfriend: loving, charming, attentive and incredibly understanding. It isn’t until Ted is arrested in connection to the murders at Lake Sammamish that Liz begins to suspect Ted isn’t the man she thought he was.
From then on, this is essentially Ted Bundy’s story as the movie entirely reneges on its premise and becomes just another tale about how smart, charming and gosh-darn handsome that Ted Bundy was that he fooled everybody. Berlinger has claimed that the movie isn’t supposed to be glamorizing or giving Ted Bundy the rock star treatment, but that’s exactly what it does. We watch as Ted proclaims his innocence vehemently, getting arrested multiple times and his daring escapes all to a groan-inducing soundtrack of tunes that are supposed to be darkly ironic.
Efron fully commits to tearing up the image of being a teen heartthrob and showing off his versatility as an actor, but though he tries his best to nail Bundy’s mannerisms, he never manages to present anything other than the pantomime of charm that Ted presented to the outside world. There are tiny windows in which you can almost see it though, the moments when Efron gives off the vacant smile and unnatural charisma while the soul from his eyes are missing, and in particular there’s a chilling moment at the end when Ted confesses, in so much as he can, to Liz the horrible crimes he has committed.
Before this moment in the finale, the entire movie presents Ted’s crimes as something still up for debate instead of him being one of America’s most notorious serial killers as mere fact. When Liz demands Ted answer for his crimes, she’s a stand-in for everyone watching who has been screaming at the top of their lungs for the entire run time. This was essentially Liz’s purpose in Extremely Wicked: the oblivious girlfriend who has become an emotional trainwreck due to the scrutiny put on Ted. She has no real agency, only a prisoner who is held captive by Ted mentally until she finally decides to kick him to the curb like a drug habit.
The pace of Extremely Wicked is a grind, there’s nothing to hook anyone in other than watching Ted protest his arrests, desperately trying to convince anyone who will listen it’s a police conspiracy to railroad an innocent man with circumstantial evidence. From there, we follow Ted’s arrests and his escapes, until it culminates in his famous trial in Florida. The first nationally-televised trial, Ted represented himself and famously proposed to Carole Anne Boone (Kaya Scodelario). Effron dutifully copies Ted peacocking around the courtroom in a ridiculously-oversized 70s bowtie, but Extremely Wicked edits these scenes in a way that makes it look like he’s a great amateur litigator holding his own when in reality his antics were so outlandish they all but guaranteed a guilty verdict.
Never actually showing much of the brutal sex crimes Ted committed until touching on them briefly at the end, it’s still off-putting how Extremely Wicked is the type of movie you could imagine Ted nodding in silent approval over from beyond the grave with its casting of hunky Zac Efron and how much time it spends sowing seeds of doubt over his conviction, until the very end. The list of the thirty known victims shown as the credits roll almost feels like a grudging obligation instead of something heartfelt.
It’s not just a bad movie about Ted Bundy (with an arguably miscast Zac Efron), Extremely Wicked has zero interest in delving into any new territory or presenting any interesting questions. Asking people “what if you didn’t know Ted Bundy was a heinous murderer of women?” isn’t a compelling premise for a movie, and the workmanlike manner it progresses through Ted’s first arrest to his execution in 1989 doesn’t help much either. Hopefully, this is the end of Netflix’s Ted Bundy obsession, and maybe the myth of the charming, intelligent serial killer can be laid to rest.