REVIEW: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile — Directed by Joe Berlinger.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile comes from Joe Berlinger, the director of Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and is based on Elizabeth Kloepfer’s book The Phantom Prince about her relationship with the infamous serial killer Ted Bundy. Lily Collins stars as Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Kendall, a single mother who has met the perfect guy. He has a nice Volkswagen, he’s nice to her and her kid, and he is fairly attractive.

Zac Efron plays this man who seems to be too good to be true. That’s because he is. Because Efron is Ted Bundy, the man who we know as one of the most infamous serial killers in American history. As authorities catch up to Bundy, Liz becomes caught in a whirlwind with no sense of up or down. Liz doesn’t know if she is being played, or if the system is putting her new man behind bars unjustly.

Some people are going to be very disappointed by the approach director Joe Berlinger takes to the story of Ted Bundy. I know for a fact that some people had expected this film to be more violent than it is — something akin to a slasher film — likely due to the suggestive title which was pulled from Judge Edward Cowart’s remarks after he had announced Bundy’s death penalty. Extremely Wicked is no slasher film, and it isn’t really the ‘mind of the killer’ film that the deserved glowing praise for Zac Efron might suggest.

Berlinger positions his film as the story of Liz. It is a reframing of the Bundy-story from the perspective of the woman that loved but feared him. What hurts the film a little bit in my mind, though, is that Berlinger’s film is too captivated by Bundy to be the film it had set itself up to be. I wish the film showed Lily Collins do more than she does here. I wish the film was as intrigued by Liz as it is of Bundy.

I found myself watching the film with my parents, my sister, and her boyfriend. Fascinatingly, my sister at one point cheered when Efron jumped out of a window to save himself. I turned my head and stared at my sister in confusion, which then led to her coming to the realization that the film’s spell had worked, she found herself cheering for someone she shouldn’t have. In truth, one of the best things about this film is that it recreates that uncertainty about Bundy. As I watched my sister’s reaction to the film, I wondered, would I have reacted similarly if Bundy’s was not a true story?

Because the truth is that Berlinger’s insistence on not showing violence for most of the film works, even though I think the film should’ve steered into Liz’s perspective more. Some audiences will see him like Liz might’ve seen him at times. Some people will feel that a promising life was wasted, like Judge Cowart — here played by John Malkovich — did. And when we finally see what he did, it may hit us like a dozen bricks. The film’s spell works and that is mostly due to the performance given by Zac Efron.

Efron is transfixing and charming in the spotlight and theatricality of the courtroom. Efron charms you more than you’d like to admit. It would not be wrong to say that Efron’s most challenging role also gives way for his most accomplished dramatic performance. High School Musical and The Greatest Showman proved that he’s a gifted heartthrob and Neighbors proved that he’s a comedic talent, but Extremely Wicked affirms what many of his fans have been saying for a while; that he is a strong, underappreciated actor. Zac Efron is well-cast in the burdensome role, and he really knocks it out of the park here.

In the end, I stand by the criticism that the film is too fascinated by Bundy to be faithful to Liz’s perspective. I did feel like I didn’t get enough out of Collins, while I was amazed by Efron even as his character got more screentime than I thought his role merited in the story I thought Berlinger tried to tell. Also, it did feel like Berlinger had a tough time getting inside the heads of either Bundy or Elizabeth. He may not have wanted to get inside the mind of Bundy, which is totally fair, but he should have paid more attention to Elizabeth. Lily Collins may not be the headline-grabber, but maybe she should’ve been.

I am not of the opinion that Extremely Wicked glorifies Ted Bundy like some people have said it does. Instead, I think Berlinger, in trying to tell the perspective of the film’s framing device, got caught up in the mournful remarks of Judge Cowart. Buoyed up immensely by a beguiling career-best performance from Zac Efron, Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is a skin-deep and slightly unfocused exploration of deception, enchantment, and denial.

6.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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