Director: Joe Berlinger
Cast: Zac Efron, Lily Collins
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Joe Berlinger’s retelling of the Ted Bundy legend, becomes the film it wants to be only in the last ten minutes. This is when Bundy’s long-time girlfriend Liz (an ethereal Lily Collins, who is too beautiful to age…or look damaged), on whose book this film is based and who spends a majority of the film sitting on a sofa, smoking cigarettes and drinking whisky opposite the television set, is finally lent some agency. For once, at long last, we sense her lifelong conflict, her tragedy of being in love with, and being unable to “read,” America’s most notorious serial killer. We imagine the sheer heartbreak of being Liz, rather than the horrors of being Bundy.
By now though, much like the fate of Bundy’s charming and celebrity-making offensive as his own lawyer in court, it is too little too late. By now, Berlinger’s movie too has, like so many young girls who religiously flocked into the courtroom, fallen for a fascinating man. A sick man. A man. The girl, who was supposed to be the protagonist all along, is barely a narrative device. She is just “the ex-lover.”
I don’t really have a problem with the gaze of the film: one of quasi-romanticization and borderline-adoration for the “headlining” act. It is based on the account of a woman who had no idea of his double-life, which is why we only ever see him winning over her kid, being fond of her and being sincere as a doting family man. We don’t see his nights, his gruesome rape and killing of several college girls over those years. We don’t see the Bundy the world imagined. He is either moonlighting as a murderer or as a lover, and Zac Efron’s spirited performance (those eyes) helps us view him, and be manipulated by him, through her eyes. When she feels betrayed later, we strangely get impatient with her, willing her to find out if he is really the psychopath the media has painted him out to be.
But the movie gets a bit obsessed with Efron, and forgets about the “gaze” soon enough. He escapes from jail a couple of times. He plays the system. He enters a bar and does shots with potential victims. This is a departure from her perspective. We see a lot of him alone, feeling and un-feeling, desperate and cheeky, seducing his future wife and addressing the cameras. Worse, the secondary casting – Jim Parsons as the prosecution lawyer, John Malkovich as the wry judge as well as Haley Joel Osment as Liz’s partner – distracts from the central conflict and turns the case into a bit of a circus, which is oddly in line with the film’s preoccupation with its own star.
Much of this, you suspect, is Liz’s interpretation of how Ted might have been when he was away from her. A hustler and child and brash man, who she couldn’t get over because of how stunned she was by her own short-sightedness rather than by his affections. This ambiguity kind of derails the film’s intriguing point of view. We know she needs closure even as she is forced to move on, but the cameras are too busy focusing on the larger-than-death figure of Ted Bundy.
As a result, Extremely Wicked… is an opportunity squandered. While it’s always exciting to explore different dimensions of a multifaceted persona, the movie becomes little more than a pop-culture collection of Bundy’s greatest hits. There is a good film somewhere in there, but she is drowned in a bottle.