Directed by Joe Berlinger, Netflix’s latest effort towards establishing itself as a movie studio, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, And Vile (EWSEAV) chronicles the crimes of notorious serial killer, Ted Bundy (Zac Efron), from the perspective of his long-time girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins), who struggled to accept the truth about him for several years.
Films that follow individuals, serial killers, like Ted Bundy have to tread a very fine line between telling the story they want to tell, and glorifying a horrific human being. Although I believe that EWSEAV managed to walk across this particular narrative tightrope, it ultimately ends up leaning more towards the glorification of Bundy, albeit accidentally. In the lead role of Ted Bundy is the ever-charming Zac Efron, who has certainly come a long way from his High School Musical (2006) days. As Bundy, Efron brings the charm in spades which works to the film’s benefit, to a point. Efron definitely gets the most to play with in this role, and it’s thanks to his performance that it becomes easier to see how he became such a sensation way back when, during his trial. As he plays what was the first nationally televised trial in the United States for its inherent theatricality, we see Bundy’s charm at its peak, whilst behind-the-scenes we continually get flashes, glimpses of this inherently creepy narcissism behind his otherwise appealing veil.
Lily Collins, likewise, puts in a solid performance as Elizabeth, the long-time, later ex-girlfriend of Ted Bundy. We see how she’s drawn in by him in the early days of their relationship and how, over time she shifts from denial of, to guilt over his crimes. Inspired by Elizabeth Kendall’s own book, The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, the film is mostly told from her perspective. And in this respect, Berlinger and screenwriter Michael Werwie do a good job on selling her side of the story. To me, her struggle with the truth is believable, particularly in light of her experience of Bundy which, presumably by his own design, does not match up with the facts. What must have been a heartbreakingly surreal experience then, is successfully presented to the audience.
However, the problem of glorification rears its ugly head in the aftermath of watching this film. While the film does an excellent job of recreating iconic moments of Bundy’s Florida trial (as emphasised by the film’s closing credits), courtesy of cinematographer Brandon Trost, the film is unwittingly sucked into the sensationalism it’s working so hard to recreate.
John Malkovich is quietly entertaining as Judge Edward Cowart, humouring Bundy as much as he shuts him down during his trial, whilst also clearly playing to the cameras. Kaya Scodelario is eager-to-a-fault as Carol Ann Boone, a woman from Bundy’s past who becomes obsessed with Bundy as his crimes come to light. The supporting cast also includes Jim Parsons as the prosecution, Larry Simpson, whilst Haley Joel Osment and Angela Sarafyan play the supporting figures in Elizabeth’s life, helping her work through her conflicting feelings over Bundy.
We are constantly presented with this more charming side of Bundy, who spends the majority of the film pleading his innocence. As the film is predominantly told from the perspective of Elizabeth, it is being told from the viewpoint of someone who was truly drawn towards Bundy; as a result, the doubt this character feels regarding whether or not he actually did commit the crimes he’s accused of, pervades the film.
And, while I should note that the film never denies his guilt, the emphasis the structure of the film places on how he drew people also highlights why they would struggle to grapple with the reality of this extraordinary situation. Fortunately, we have the benefit of hindsight, and while it does well to avoid exploiting the gruesome details of Bundy’s crimes, the film ultimately fails to delve below the surface of Bundy’s charms.