Charismatic or fascinating serial killers are a well-established type in Hollywood mythology, Hannibal Lecter in his many incarnations being only the most celebrated.
Lecter, of course, is fiction, but Ted Bundy was as close to the reality behind the myth as you’re likely to find. A celebrity already in his own day, Bundy was attractive, clever, and charismatic, playing to the TV cameras at his trial and drawing young women to his trial like groupies, styled to resemble the favored type of his victims.
Filmmaker Joe Berlinger’s fascination with Bundy is obvious: In addition to Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zac Efron as Bundy, he also created the four-part documentary miniseries “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” for Netflix.
Despite its factual basis, Extremely Wicked embraces the Hollywood myth to a disturbing degree.
I’m tempted to say that Efron is an “iconic” Bundy. He gives a committed performance, not as Bundy exactly, but as Bundy’s public face at its most presentable, all smooth charm and magnetism.
It’s this face that he shows to Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins), a single mom with whom he becomes involved, and to others from potential victims to authorities.
But first-time screenwriter Michael Werwie so wants viewers to identify with Liz — to feel that we, too, could be just as deceived by those closest to us — that he stacks the deck.
The real Bundy could be charming, but an honest film about Bundy and Kloepfer’s relationship could just as easily be called Super Weird, Emotionally Abusive and Threatening.
That, however, would not be this film.
To start with, Bundy stole constantly: cars, electronic equipment (a television, a stereo), textbooks, anything he wanted and thus felt he had a right to take. Kloepfer was aware of at least some of this; when she confronted him about the television, he threatened to break her neck if she told anyone.
Among suspicious bits of evidence lying around, she found a meat cleaver in his car, a hatchet and a taped-up lug wrench hidden in her own car, and, in his apartment, women’s underwear, keys, plaster of Paris, bandages and crutches. (The last three items were used to simulate disability in order to disarm potential victims and gain their sympathy, like Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs — not quite the virile ladykiller move.)
Bundy’s treatment of Elizabeth was manipulative and cruel. After promising to marry her and even getting the marriage certificate, he tore it up in her face. He pressured her for kinky sex and talked a lot about sex acts they never performed. More than once she woke up to find him examining her body under the covers with a flashlight.
The film, though, expunges any hint of warning signs that might offer viewers any reassurance that they wouldn’t have been taken in. Efron’s Ted is nothing but sensitive, supportive and romantic toward Liz.
Not only does his façade never crack, not one female character in Ted’s orbit shows any resistance to his charms. The nearly swooning groupies at his trial may be based in fact, but as presented here they almost comically evoke Gaston’s “Bimbettes” in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
The strategy of showing only Ted the charmer becomes an unsolvable structural problem as Liz, whose story frames the narrative in a way that suggests she was meant to be the protagonist, drops out for much of the running time, lapsing into static passivity.
The result is less a film about Bundy than an idea of a film about an idea of Bundy: a project with no point of view, no real insight, no reason to exist.
“Ted was never as handsome, brilliant, or charismatic as crime folklore has deemed him,” Ann Rule, who knew Bundy and wrote The Stranger Beside Me about her relationship with him, has stated. “He somehow became all of those things as the media embraced him. I don’t think even Ted knew what he was really like.”
That’s the film I’d like to see, if anyone was interested in making it.
This post is partly based on a Sundance capsule review written for CityWeekly.net.