'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile' Unfortunately Lives Up to Its Name

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HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 1.5/5.0
Rating: 1.5/5.0

CHICAGO – Hearing the details of tragic stories, we often find it hard to understand how they got into that situation in the first place, especially since all the red flags are so obvious to us. “I’d never be so dumb,” we tell ourselves. “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” takes us through how easy it is to miss something that we’ve never truly seen.

Ted Bundy is one of the most notorious serial killers in American history, not just for his brutality and the methods of corpse desecration, but because of how mainstream his case became. The “If it bleeds, it leads” television news mentality could have found its roots with this case, especially since it was the first televised case of its kind. The fascination of the case stretched well beyond the details and focused much more on the subject to the point of fanaticism. Much of this we already knew, but what exactly new does this Netflix original film have to offer us that a well-balanced documentary can’t? An odd perspective.

The film tricks you even in the beginning, leading you to believe that we will be shown a story from the perspective of Elizabeth “Liz” Kendall, who wrote the novel the film is based on. We begin where Liz’s (Lily Collins) relationship with Ted Bundy (Zac Efron) began, and then watch their relationship blossom. Each step along the way, we see what a great man Ted is, especially for taking a chance on a single mother. Early on, we never see him raise his voice or even express any form of anger, and why would he? Those are all too obvious signs of other underlying issues and we aren’t meant to see anything of that because Liz apparently didn’t either. This form of gaslight storytelling would have been a fine tone to stick with if it had stayed consistent throughout the entire film.

extremely wicked
Photo credit: Netflix

Writer Michael Werwie makes his feature film debut trying to adapt a very personal novel about one woman’s experience, only to almost entirely throw her perspective to the wayside in favor of more Ted time. Essentially this is the same treatment many of Bundy’s fans gave the trial, which was problematic all its own, but snatching the narrative focus from Liz’s life to Ted’s is not only disrespectful but sloppy. The film’s tone and perspective changes around more times than Ted’s attorneys did. We are shown nothing but a good guy who seems to be unjustly targeted by law enforcement as an easy scapegoat in an attempt to get us to second guess our own ideas of the man’s guilt. Unfortunately, we’re not manipulated so easily.

This sort of creative fiction storytelling is better suited for a conspiracy theory YouTube channel than it is for an entire film. If there were new perspective (based in fact) or approach to this well-told story, I could see it warranting exploration in a film, but as it stands, this shows us less than the facts you can easily read on a Wikipedia page. TV documentary director Joe Berlinger tries to bring the true crime grit we’ve seen in his past projects, but it ends up falling flat like one of those dramatized reenactments. The only saving grace is his on-screen treatment of Ted Bundy, which is a shame since the focus really should have stayed on Liz. Berlinger makes sure to emphasize the aspects of Ted that made him such a dangerous force: A combination of his handsome features (for the time period), charm and charisma. Every time Ted entered a room, the camera made sure to focus on every female’s expression of desire. Trust me, that TV-style gimmick gets old fast, but with Zac Efron as the center, it’s impossible not to understand the appeal.

extremely wicked2
Photo credit: Netflix

Despite under-delivering on almost every other front, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” takes all of the natural qualities we know Zac Efron possesses and smartly applies them to the character. Although Lily Collins delivers a strong performance, the treatment of her character overall underscores it completely. You get almost the same amount of development and care for her character as some of the secondary characters, like those of Haley Joel Osment and Kaya Scodelario. Much like Ted Bundy himself did back in his day, Efron effortlessly steals the spotlight with his performance, not quite saving the film but at the very least making it watchable.

An exploration of how his looks, charms, and white privilege helped him and many other serial killers get away as long as they did would have been a much more interesting dive than this reckless what-if fantasy scenario that played out. Very rarely does the title of a film so aptly describe every technical and narrative part of it, but then, here we are.

“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” available on Netflix on May 3rd. Featuring Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Haley Joel Osment, Kaya Scodelario, John Malkovich, and Jim Parsons. Directed by Joe Berlinger. Written by Michael Werwie. Rated “R”

Jon Espino, film and video game critic, HollywoodChicago.com

Film & Video Game Critic

© 2019 Jon Espino, HollywoodChicago.com

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