Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile (2019) is extremely well acted but shockingly superficial

Extremely Wicked Shocking Evil And Vile ReviewHeavily leaning into the tone of Netflix’s “Making A Murderer”, Joe Berlinger’s shallow but still absorbing biopic of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy places us firmly into the perspective of Bundy’s long-time girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) by using all the tricks and tropes of the ‘innocent man accused’ documentary style to constantly confound the audience’s expectation.

Zac Efron as Bundy is superb, radiating the charm, charisma and magnetism which goes some way to explaining Bundy’s horrific, prolific litany of murders. His eyes become the window to Bundy’s black-hearted soul as they flash from smouldering sensuality to steely malevolence and back when the mask occasionally slips. He brings an exquisite, subtle physicality to the role giving Bundy mannerisms and actions which creep around the peripheral edge of your perception – in the way he holds a kitchen knife or the way his hand rests on someone’s neck in a position and for a moment longer than seems comfortable or normal – to remind us of the dark truth of the man and what he’s capable of while he beams that megawatt smile.

Of course, the price we pay for sharing the perspective of Kendall is that we’re never presented with a forensic examination of the case or how they linked Bundy to an ever-increasing number of murders and the muddled timeline at the start of the film may serve to keep us off balance but comes at the expense of clarity.

Sentences and convictions seem to just happen in a disjointed and unexplained manner and underdeveloped supporting characters drift in and out of the story as meticulously recreating actual events and contemporary news footage take precedence over embracing the drama of the facts. There’s no salacious revelling in Bundy’s crimes, though and the film doesn’t wallow or fetishize in his acts of violence in the way of, say, “American Psycho”. Most of the details of his crimes are left to the imagination of the viewer and, aside from a few shocking seconds here and there, left off-screen where they belong.

Lily Collins, though, does good work given the paucity of material she has to work with, as does Haley Joel Osment but Kaya Scodelario as Bundy’s wife Carole Ann Boone mostly finds herself trapped in simply recreating existing footage and dialogue.

The title of the movie is well chosen, taken directly from Judge Edward D Cowart (John Malkovich)’s bafflingly genial summing up of the case. The movie doesn’t really offer any real insights into the nature of Bundy the person and it definitely fails to live up to the promise of being the story ‘behind’ America’s most notorious serial killer but it is a chilling sketch of the plausibility of how a handsome, charming, clever and charismatic man could have continued his vicious reign of terror for so long and an eye-opening indictment of a justice system which, while in the throws of prosecuting his catalogue of atrocities, lamented the waste of his potential rather than the lives lost to his monstrous, murderous urges. It also serves as a retrospectively early warning of the coming dangers of social media as, by providing him with television cameras in court, he receives not condemnation but a platform.