Zac Efron is mesmerizing as serial killer Ted Bundy who confessed to more than 30 homicides of young girls and women in the 1970s.
It may seem that director Joe Berlinger is glorifying the man who easily fits the description of a monster by leaving out any scenes of violence committed by Bundy who raped, mutilated and had sex with the corpses of his female victims. Instead, the audience is left with the portrait of a charismatic law student who used his charm to cast a spell on his victims and girlfriend, Elizabeth “Liz” Kloepfer, played by Lily Collins.
The film is based on her book “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy,” which was written under the pseudonym, Liz Kendall.
Translating the book into a film and casting Zac Efron as Ted Bundy is like handling nitroglycerin. It’s a risky situation that requires the right balance of charm and immorality, two contrasting qualities that have the potential of blowing up in your face if not handled properly. Berlinger does a solid job of giving us a glimpse of what Elizabeth and the many women who encountered Bundy experienced – a man so delusional yet self-assured and charming that it’s easy to see how he seduced those who met him.
The key to the film’s success is how it never humanizes Bundy. We see his charm and how he used it to manipulate both men and women, but there are constant reminders of the serial killer’s brutality, whether it’s an occasional glare by Efron, as if his true identity is revealed if only for a fleeting moment or the various news reports of women who have disappeared.
There are also subtle hints that we are dealing with an evil person, like the scene where Bundy and his girlfriend go to a shelter to adopt a dog and the canine begins growling and barking as if it’s trying to warn Liz. There are enough of these revealing moments in “Extremely Wicked” that serve as chilling reminders of who we are dealing with.
The film is based on Kloepfer’s book detailing her experience with Bundy and how eventually his lies caught up with him.
Lily Collins delivers a superb performance as Liz. It’s easy to see how Bundy entered her life at a very vulnerable moment. Liz had just moved to Seattle as a single mom raising a newborn daughter. She meets Bundy at a bar on a rare night out with a friend and eventually, he moves in with her playing the father figure to Molly whom we see blossom into an 8-year-old who loves art and sharks. Collins who made her acting debut a decade ago in “The Blind Side” prepped for the role by meeting Kloepfer who now officially goes by her pseudonym, Liz Kendall.
Despite the first-rate performance by Collins, the screenplay by Michael Werwie, unfortunately, favors Bundy by modifying the actual story.
We see Efron’s Bundy charm his way over to Liz at the jukebox and introduce himself when it was Liz who approached Bundy in real life because he looked sad sitting alone at the bar. She sparked up a conversation by saying, “You look like your best friend just died.”
Also, in her memoir, Liz describes their relationship as rocky and how Bundy would turn cold on her and then later act as nothing happened. In the film, they seem to have a great relationship as Bundy goes on his killing sprees and then returns to a loving home. If the audience was shown just how volatile their relationship was, it would have strengthened both characters immensely.
The supporting cast features a scene-stealing Kaya Scodelario, as Carole Ann Boone, who fell in love with Bundy while he was on Death Row. The two conceived a child while he was locked up, and eventually married.
Scodelario is so good that your attention is focused on her no matter who else is in the scene. Bundy didn’t love her, but she was the only one who stood by him when everyone else, including Liz, had abandoned him.
Haley Joel Osment plays Jerry Thompson who becomes Liz’s boyfriend after he befriends her at work at a time when she becomes hooked on booze to cope with the truth about Bundy.
The film also features good performances by Jim Parsons as prosecutor Larry Simpson and John Malkovich whose career is beaming thanks to his roles in the Netflix films “Bird Box” and “Velvet Buzzsaw.” This marks the third Netflix film in a row for Malkovich who plays Judge Cowart. He continues to be one of the best actors working today. “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” gets its title from the remarks made by Judge Cowart to Bundy during sentencing.
Director Joe Berlinger who’s known for his true crime documentaries (including “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” and “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger”) was already focused on Bundy after recently releasing the Netflix docuseries “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” which proved valuable for the making of this film.
Although Michael Werwie’s screenplay won a 2012 Nicholl Fellowship and made the Black List, I feel if we would have been able to see the temperamental relationship between Liz and Bundy, it would have made for a stronger film.
While the film is based on Liz’s story, it still feels like it’s centered on Bundy. Nonetheless, Efron and Collins are first-rate and Berlinger does a suitable job of keeping the film balanced. We get peeks of the monster Ted Bundy throughout the film and a chilling final moment between Bundy and Liz that puts everything into perspective.