Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

extremely-wicked-shockingly-evil-and-vile-movie It’s an old ping-pong witticism: “So-and-so has a lot of charm.” “Yeah, so did Ted Bundy.” The new Bundy film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the second Bundy project for Netflix by director Joe Berlinger (after January’s Conversations with a Killer series), might overplay the monster’s charisma a bit. Some have charged the movie makes Bundy look better as a lawyer (he was a law student) acting as his own defense than he really was, and that’s true. What Berlinger is after here, I think, is a collective portrait of a society taken in by Bundy — and, by extension, taken in by smiling evil that makes them feel good. To come to terms with his guilt was to admit one’s own dangerous credulity in the face of Satan.

Some saw Bundy for what he was. Others did not, because Bundy had an interest in focusing all his skills at imposture onto them. Extremely Wicked is based on a memoir by Liz Kendall, the woman with whom Bundy had a live-in relationship for years, during which time he kept diabolically busy out of the house. Liz, like many in her situation, believes Bundy when he insists on his innocence. If she’s wrong, it means she endangered not only herself by being with him but her daughter. After a while, as the movie’s emphasis shifts from Liz to Bundy’s trial and escapes from custody, we begin to suspect that Bundy himself, or the part of himself that can convincingly participate in society, doesn’t want to believe he could have murdered all those women.

Berlinger spent four hours with Conversations with a Killer going over all the evidence, tapes, cold forensics. My feeling is that he then jumped into Extremely Wicked (from a Black List script by Michael Werwie) because it turns the camera 180 degrees and focuses not on Bundy but on his impact on those around him. (The classic in the genre is probably still Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, the true-crime author’s account of her friendship with Bundy before his arrest.) I also imagine Berlinger wanted to make the movie just for the scene near the end, when Bundy (Zac Efron) is about to go to the electric chair and Liz (Lily Collins) demands that he admit at least some guilt. I suspect Berlinger waded hip-deep in the sewer slime of Bundy’s case and then wanted to pull something redeeming out of it, some closure. It didn’t happen that way in life (if you want unalloyed fact, stick to the records), but dramatically and metaphorically it feels right; the entire movie leads up to this moment, and Efron and Collins don’t falter.

Indeed, Efron nails the insecure lunges at compassion as well as the glowering menace that define Bundy. We see the real Bundy during the end credits, delivering the same dialogue Efron did; Bundy shows us something Efron, to his soul’s credit, can’t show — a grotesque moral void. Efron does pack in enough ominous bits of business to give us the creeps, and Collins gives us a woman who isn’t stupid so much as self-hating. Liz needs a guy as nice as Bundy seems to be, and Bundy needs to be needed in that way — whether because being in a relationship is good cover for being Jack the Ripper, or because a small part of him legitimately wants sane love, who’s to say? Later, of course, there are giggling Bundy groupies in the courthouse and one former coworker who falls in love with him and even has his baby. Some women will always be attracted to the monster.

Extremely Wicked has a murderers’ row of terrific performers (John Malkovich, Dylan Baker, Terry Kinney, Jim Parsons, Haley Joel Osment, Kaya Scodelario, Jeffrey Donovan) keeping the courtroom cat-and-mouse games lively. It sets the tone with a Goethe quote (“Few people have the imagination for reality”) that, coming from a director with extensive cred in the true-crime documentary field, is both funny and not funny. Berlinger spent a lot of years making not one but three films about the Memphis Three and how they got railroaded for the murder of three boys, and they proclaimed their innocence as vehemently as Bundy did his. As it happens, they deserved to be believed. Bundy did not, but many believed anyway. They couldn’t imagine the reality.

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See also: Ted Bundy, a far pulpier and pugnaciously contemptuous take.

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Explore posts in the same categories: biopic, drama

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