What the hell happened?
“Extremely wicked, shockingly evil, vile” is a quote infamously made by Edward Cowart, the judge who presided over the trial of Ted Bundy. The quote is one of lore within the horrific Bundy saga, but it can also be used to describe the editing job inflicted on the new biopic of the notorious killer. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is an unfocused, impatient mess of a film that drags what should be a simple narrative through the unnecessary constraints of out of order storytelling. The technique, famously used in films like Memento (2000) and Batman Begins (2005), could be useful when trying to retell Bundy’s life story. But the film uses it cavalierly, forcing us to go through key moments in the narrative at breakneck speed, creating a disconnect of what we should be feeling or experiencing.
The film begins as Ted Bundy (Zac Efron) meets his future girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins), at a bar. This would typically be where we’d show why Bundy was such a magnetic charmer. The real Bundy wasn’t near the ladies man he has been talked up to be, but the movie clearly feels he is so an effort should be made to get that point across. Instead, Ted’s first night with Elizabeth is intercut with scenes of Elizabeth visiting Ted in jail. The film takes no time to slow down to watch their chemistry unfold, so we can experience how deceptive and sociopathic Bundy is.
We do get to see Bundy begin to form a family with Elizabeth and her child from a previous relationship, through montage, which is intercut with the real life news clips of a mysterious serial killer committing murders in the Pacific Northwest. This is the one time the editing style comes off really well, as the film juxtaposes Bundy’s idyllic life with the monstrous truth bubbling under the surface. The grace in which these scenes are handled is but for a brief moment, as we’re soon back to choppily cut scenes and rushed character development. It feels like a clip show at times, as if you’re experiencing the movie through some YouTube review channel like The Nostalgia Critic. You get the sense that the scenes filmed didn’t come together like the filmmakers would have liked, which explains how haphazard everything was cut.
Things do begin to slow down when we get to the trial. These scenes are bolstered by character actors such as John Malkovich as the aforementioned Cowart, and Jim Parsons as prosecutor Larry Simpson. Here, the ludicrous editing style takes a break so we can focus on Bundy’s antics, Elizabeth’s guilt, and Bundy’s budding romance with Carole Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario). This may be the strongest section of the film, but it’s still just average. With all the great acting talent on display, the films fails to grip you because the story is so poorly built up until this point.
We barely know this Bundy or why he chooses to murder young women. Yes, we’re disgusted by him, but the film lacks the depth to explore his fragile masculinity in order to create more disturbing context behind his actions. He’s just a monster, but because he’s a monster with seemingly no motives, and because his victims aren’t afforded any characterization, we’re left with a story lacking weight and any true insight on the uglier parts of society.
Efron’s performance, which many will consider the draw here, is serviceable but not transcendent. Efron is charismatic and engaging, but his performance would probably be better appreciated if he was playing a fictional character. The real Bundy was a smug, creepy bastard with eyes that signaled that everything wasn’t quite right upstairs. Efron tries his best, but his attempts at being mentally disturbed aren’t convincing. He is able to capture Bundy’s disillusionment, and his arrogance about his masculinity, but not the arrogance about his intellect or Bundy’s unintentional creep factor. Bundy believed he was the smartest person in the room, but clearly was not. He consistently mocked up and coming lawyers, believing he knew the law like the back of his hand even though he didn’t have the credentials to prove it. Efron’s Bundy isn’t the smartest person either, but we’re not sure if he has the same level of hubris regarding his intelligence; he just comes off as a buffoon that doesn’t want to admit guilt, rather than someone who actively believes his courtroom strategies will work.
It’s also amusing that Efron is cast here in the first place. For decades, Bundy’s apparent attractiveness has been glamorized by the media, which doesn’t stop here as one of Hollywood’s biggest hot throbs is cast to play him. The real Bundy had mediocre success with establishing relationships, mostly due to his insecurity, but the man himself also more closely resembles Bob Saget’s uglier brother than the sex God he’s portrayed to be. Here, Efron’s Bundy is a love machine and a charismatic enigma. As a result, the women in his story get shortchanged. This film is supposed to be about Kloepfer and her inability to see the monster behind the man. But she is but a footnote in this tale.
No, this is really Bundy’s show, but the film fails at even explaining why the monster is what he’s become. There should be way more to say about Kloepfer as well as the dozens of Bundy’s victims and their families. But if you’re going to focus the movie entirely on Bundy’s prison escapes and his circus of a trial, at least frame the story so viewers can experience why so many were fooled into believing this young lawyer couldn’t possibly be a serial killer. The real Ted Bundy deserves nothing, but his story and the life lessons to be learned regarding mental health deserve better.