Ted Bundy

Can a movie succeed if the director has nothing but contempt for his subject? Matthew Bright’s Ted Bundy attempts to answer that question. Bright, who made the twisted gems Freeway and Trickbaby, is drawn to the tangled nightside of the psyche, so you’d figure he’d be the perfect go-to guy for a serial-killer biopic. Instead, Bright (who can blame him, really?) stands outside his misogynistic, sadistic rapist-murderer and finds him pathetic. It doesn’t make for terribly enlightening viewing, but maybe that’s the point.

I hope Michael Reilly Burke is in a very solid longtime relationship, because I have a hard time imagining anyone wanting to be with him after catching his act as Bundy. Following Bright’s merciless lead, Burke paints Bundy as a glowering, loathsome maggot who can only occasionally get it together to act “normal” around his clueless girlfriend and her little daughter. The movie has no fancy structure; it’s just Bundy isolating and killing one brainless woman after another, again and again, until he’s thrown in jail. Then he escapes and starts killing again. Then he’s thrown in jail again. Then he escapes again and starts killing again

It’s numbing, albeit not sensationalized. You certainly don’t identify with Bundy on the prowl, but the movie also has an unmistakable bewildered contempt for the many women — including his girlfriend — who fell for his act. Admittedly, we are seeing Bundy’s victims through modern-day eyes; his peak days as a serial killer were the mid-’70s, when young women were simply less cautious about whose car they got into (decades of media reportage on serial killers have made everyone more aware of the risks). But Bright, who has a deep love and respect for strong women (see his Freeway movies), seems to throw up his hands in exasperation at the fatal naivete of those doomed girls; at times he seems to infantilize them, as when two sorority girls are seen bouncing on their beds in their panties, moments before Bundy sneaks in with a log and caves their heads in. The only time the movie really comes alive is when one of Bundy’s would-be victims fights back viciously and gets away; you can feel Bright perking up and enjoying Bundy getting bashed around.

Ted Bundy ends on a rather sadistic note. It devotes a full ten or fifteen minutes to Bundy’s execution, and we get it all — the fear, the shaved head, the policemen wearing latex gloves (suddenly we’re in a BDSM cop-fetish porn movie), the Vaseline-coated cotton balls stuffed up the rectum so that Bundy won’t soil himself. Bright lingers over Bundy’s agony, and you may think, Well, good, he had it coming. Ted Bundy is one of the rare movies that spend 100 minutes with someone only to glory in his protracted death.

Bright has admitted that the movie shouldn’t be taken as literal fact. It’s an impression of the events, if you like. Did Bundy really carry a bagged corpse (with feet sticking out) to his car past a group of dog-walkers who didn’t even notice? Did his girlfriend really stay with him even after he forced her to play dead during sex while screaming obscenities at her? Was Bundy’s hooded executioner really a woman? Who knows?

It’s best to read Ted Bundy as Bright’s two-pronged assault on homicidal women-haters and those who glorify them; a hardline lesbian feminist filmmaker could not have made a more withering expression of disgust at misogynist pathology. At the very end, Bright gives us a Tiger Woods-like montage of little kids — including a little girl holding a dead cat! — reciting “I am Ted Bundy.” Well, what does that mean? That, however much we enjoyed seeing Bundy die, his evil didn’t die with him? That our culture is creating more Bundys every year? Again, who knows? Ted Bundy is certainly the least resolved — and for that reason, the most disturbing — true-life serial-killer movie since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (still the genre’s high-water mark). It’s also the least engaging.

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