Are you sick of Ted Bundy? I’m fucking sick of Ted Bundy. As a whole, despite the fact that I would consider myself a bit of a true crime ghoul, I am pretty much exhausted with the endless muckraking over the terrible things that terrible people have done just for the sake of hearing about them again. Joe Beringer, the director of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, was the man behind a four-part documentary on Ted Bundy that was out just a couple of months ago that, to my mind, did just that – offering little more than a grubby deep-dive into Bundy’s actions, I was less than impressed with that take on the story when it came out. It felt inessential, voyeuristic. Unpleasant.
And thusly I was hardly looking forward to Beringer’s fictional take on the same story – not just because it seemed like yet more Bundy-masturbation for everyone who can’t stop talking about how handsome and charming he was, but because I am sick of seeing this story dragged over, again and again.
But Beringer promised a different take on the story, this time around, it seemed – this movie was to follow the story of Elizabeth Kendall (played by Lily Collins), the woman that Ted Bundy was romantically involved with during much of his criminal activity. And, despite my better judgement, I was somewhat intrigued by this premise – what could a fundamental shift in narrative do to shed a new light on the story? Anything that decentralizes the perpetrator in true crime stories (see also: the excellent documentary Tower) is a pretty enticing proposition, just for the sake of the new angle it can explore.
But Beringer and company seem far too enamoured with Ted Bundy to really allow Collinn’s Kendall to take centre stage. Zac Efron’s performance as Bundy is a perfectly solid interpretation of the character – it features flashes of genuine brilliance, such as Bundy’s first encounter with the press after his charges. But that brilliance could have been better teased out if the movie had actually decided who this film was actually about. While it starts as a story about Kendall, it all but forgets about her in the second act, focusing instead on the grandstanding of Bundy in the courtroom and treating Kendall as a jumping-off point into his story rather than a thorough investigation into hers.
I think the biggest issue with Extremely Wicked is the fact that it seems to miss the point of its own story. Because when it remembers what it is actually about – Elizabeth Kendall, trying to navigate the horror of realizing the man she loved is one of the most infamous serial killers of the twentieth century, and finding ways to reconcile the person she knew with the Ted Bundy that the world would come to recognize – it’s a very strong film, an interesting take on a much-raked period in history. But Beringer wants to make a Ted Bundy biopic, more than anything else, and it renders Kendall’s involvement in the story curiously secondary, despite her apparently intrinsic part in the movie.
The constant displacement of main character status renders Extremely Wicked a frustrating affair more than anything else. It comes so close, so often, to being a film that’s honestly great, an actually-innovative take on a much-trodden territory – those moments where Kendall grapples with the reality of what her lover has done are superbly acted and genuinely gripping stuff. But, for the most part, the film is simply nothing more than a lovingly-crafted recreation of the trial, media appearances, and various escapes of a man whose exploits have been interrogated by dozens of actors, writers, and directors, dozens of times over. The Elizabeth Kendall angle could have – and almost does – offer something new, but for the most part, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile fails to deliver.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via The Washington Post)