'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Efron delivers in this energetic account of serial killer Ted Bundy.

Zac Efron plays serial killer Ted Bundy and Lily Collins a single Seattle mother he seduces in Joe Berlinger's film.

Not to say that Zac Efron was born to play Ted Bundy, but the former High School Musical teen heartthrob is more than a bit convincing as the seductive, prolific and diabolical serial killer of young women in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Venerated documentary stalwart Joe Berlinger, who just happens to also have a four-part Netflix docuseries on the same subject, Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, currently on view, does a cogent, propulsive job putting the appallingly prolific murderer’s story onscreen, and such material customarily finds an interested public.

Largely avoiding the opportunity to exploit the violence of Bundy’s extensive criminal career, during which he killed at least 30 women and probably more in the 1970s, Michael Werwie’s fine, smartly structured screenplay centers instead on his relationship with a young Seattle woman, Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins), whom he never harmed.

So handsome and charming was this young law student that he didn’t have to seduce women, they came after him, and it made no difference to Ted that Liz had a young daughter. He knew how to treat ladies well, or so it seemed; as it happens, there was an unusual spike in killings of young women in the Seattle area, 1970-74.

With Efron playing him, it’s very easy to believe in Ted’s ability to insinuate himself into the lives of innumerable women. Why he grew so attached to Liz — and why he didn’t eventually kill her — remains unclear. But he did develop a bad habit of getting pulled over at night by the cops, which perplexed him. Worse than that, when he and Liz visited a dog pound to possibly choose one, a very intuitive hound began growling at the young man intensely. It didn’t find a home that day.

Suspicions of something amiss were soon aroused in humans as well. In Utah, Bundy was accused and eventually sentenced to prison for aggravated assault in 1976, by which time homicide investigators took an interest in him. Thus triggers a particularly engaging stretch of the film, as the French prison-escape novel Papillon becomes Ted’s bible and he eventually busts out of not just one but two jails.

Perhaps his biggest mistake is ending up in Florida, where authorities revered the death penalty and weren’t about to let the now-famous outlaw escape again. “I’m gong to fry you,” a local sheriff promises after Bundy is hit with two charges of first degree murder.

Berlinger attacks the story in a rough-and-ready style only somewhat more refined than what he employs in documentaries, and the approach feels entirely appropriate. It also displays the versatility of cinematographer Brandon Trost, who most recently shot the more classically composed Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Up to this point, Efron’s Bundy has been smooth, resourceful and unflappably confident. But in the climactic act, the character and the actor raise their games considerably as the murder trial commences. Far from contrite, he is madly confident and has entirely won over the blind support and love of an old friend, Carole Anne Boone (Kay Scodelario), with whom he manages to find ways to engage in passionate congress within courthouse walls, to the point of impregnating her.

The trial is a dynamite affair, which Bundy takes over after firing his attorney. The trial judge, played with and for great amusement by John Malkovich, fancies himself as a sage and wit. Efron flies higher than ever here, investing his character with an illusory confidence that’s entertaining even when the character and legal charges fully live up to the film’s title.

All along, Bundy has tried to maintain contact with his seemingly genuine love, Liz (whose kid mysteriously disappears from the narrative in the later-going). Where many other women fell for Bundy in the worst way, Liz was able to survive, for reasons that are never explored. Indeed, the psychological aspect of the killer’s prolific career is simply not addressed.

Still, it’s quite a story, which Berlinger moves along with unrelenting energy. He also gets good marks across the board for his work with the actors, an uncertain issue when it comes to documentary makers trying to cross over to the dramatic sphere. The director’s only previous dramatic feature, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was a creative fiasco, one that put him off fictional stories for two decades. He’s done more than a little better this time.

Production companies: Cota Films, Voltage Pictures
Cast: Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kay Scodelario, Jeffrey Donovan, Angela Sarafyan, Dylan Baker, Brian Geraghty, Jim Parsons, John Malkovich, Haley Joel Osment
Director: Joe Berlinger
Screenwriter: Michael Werwie, based on the book The Phanton Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall
Producers: Michael Costigan, Nicolas Chartier, Ara Kershishian, Michael Simkin
Executive producers: Zac Efron, Michael Werwie, Jonathan, Deckter, Jason Barrett
Director of photography: Brandon Trost
Production designer: Brandon Tonner-Connolly
Costume designer: Megan Stark Evans
Editor: Josh Schaeffer
Music: Marco Beltrami, Dennis Smith
Casting: Neely Eisenstein
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

108 minutes