The crowded courtroom scenes in the second half of the new Netflix film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” attempt to portray the excesses of our collective morbid curiosity.
The title of the film was borrowed from the words of veteran judge Edward D. Cowart who presided over the 1979 trial of Ted Bundy. Bundy was accused of murdering two Florida State University sorority sisters as well as three additional attempted murder charges. For the first time in American history, cameras were allowed to film the trial which took place in a Miami courtroom. Home viewers could watch the drama unfold live on television.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” spans about two decades, providing a glimpse at Bundy’s life. Director Joe Berlinger cannot be condemned for glorifying Bundy’s brutal crimes. In fact, he wisely chooses not to re-enact the killings at all. Instead, he focuses on Bundy’s relationship with single mother Liz Kendall and, later, Carole Ann Boone. Berlinger examines how Bundy manipulated these two women as he tried to keep the convinced of his innocence.
Unfortunately, the biopic doesn’t take any chances. Berlinger never gets inside Bundy’s head. The viewer can see Bundy’s narcissism in action, but there’s no attempt to analyze what drives it. The viewer can sense Liz’s unhealthy attachment to Bundy, but the script fails to provide enough context to help the viewer understand her perspective.
It’s evident that Berlinger is equally interested in critiquing the criminal justice system in America. The film depicts how Bundy evaded capture, escaped captivity and was often allowed a platform from which he made a mockery of the legal system.
“Few other American serial killers have achieved his level of perverse celebrity and even admiration by so many who for years thought he was innocent,” Berlinger stated in his director’s statement. “Bundy brilliantly used the podium of the American media to gain a sizeable, fanatical following by defying all expectations of what kind of person ends up being a serial killer. Simply put, as a charming, good-looking and seemingly upwardly mobile white man, his lovers and many friends and acquaintances could not believe he was capable of the vile acts he committed, allowing him to escape detection for many years.”
Berlinger assumes his audience is familiar enough with Bundy to recognize that his allure and charisma are a ruse. By not contrasting his beguiling traits with the brutal reality of his crimes, Berlinger risks making his subject less malevolent.
Adding to the problem is that Zac Efron’s portrayal of Bundy is as disarmingly magnetic as it is darkly unsettling. Efron seems better equipped to reveal the true evil that lurks inside the smug law student. Where Berlinger sticks to a paint-by-numbers playbook with no new revelations about the subject matter, Efron digs deep into Bundy’s soul with his outstanding performance.
Given the limitations of the script, Lily Collins does a fine job portraying Bundy’s girlfriend Liz. The fact that the entire film wasn’t shown from Liz’s perspective is one of many missed opportunities here.
Other standout performances in the film include John Malkovich as Judge Edward Cowart, Jim Parsons as Larry Simpson and Haley Joel Osment as Jerry Thompson.
The cast can’t be faulted for the deficiencies of “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.” With a screenplay from Michael Werwie, the film is based on the memoir “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy,” written by Elizabeth “Liz” Kendall. Berlinger is best known as a true crime documentary filmmaker. His only other feature film was “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.” Prior to the May 3 release of “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” Berlinger produced and directed the Netflix docu-series “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.”
Considering his familiarity with the subject matter, it seems curious that Berlinger refrained from making a direct statement about Bundy’s degeneracy. Instead, the director seems content to posit that Bundy’s sensationalized trial set the stage for the true crime fixation that has dominated the media in recent times. It seems more likely that the current trend is just another manifestation of our longstanding prurient and voyeuristic nature. Fascination with true crime did not start with Bundy. It didn’t start with the Manson Family murders chronicled in “Helter Skelter” by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. It didn’t start with Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” It didn’t start with tabloid press tales of Jack the Ripper. Wasn’t it morbid curiosity that drew Roman spectators to the Colosseum to watch executions?
Like it or not, it’s part of our nature to gawk at these monsters and scrutinize their crimes.