I usually hate long-winded movie titles, but Joe Berlinger’s fascinating companion piece to his Ted Bundy Netflix documentary Conversations with a Killer justifies the title Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, just in a way I didn’t necessarily expect. There is almost no violence explicitly shown in the movie until the final scene. The wicked, shockingly evil, vile aspects of Ted Bundy are illustrated through his gaslighting, manipulation, and narcissism. Bundy was a beguiling enigma, able to charm and deceive the people closest to him and the public. What Berlinger’s film gets absolutely right is depicting the media’s obsessive romanticization of Bundy without glorifying the killer himself. It’s a high-wire tightrope act of a movie that never falters in its goal.
There’s many different angles one could go with in creating a movie based on Ted Bundy. You could attempt to recreate the murders in graphic detail, make a police procedural movie about trying to track down the killer, show flashbacks to Bundy’s childhood in an attempt to explain the evil. Extremely Wicked is based on the 1981 book The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kloepfer (under the pseudonym Elizabeth Kendall), Bundy’s former girlfriend, and by placing Kloepfer in the forefront of the story, with many of the events being seen from her perspective, the film becomes a salvaging and a reclaiming of her story. There are sequences that exist on their own, outside of her perspective, but they don’t glamorize or reinterpret the truth, nor do they paint Bundy as the “hero” of this story. When I first saw the trailer for Extremely Wicked, I was unnerved by the overall tone. They seemed to be channeling some sort of dark comedy where a charming, attractive family man also happens to be a psychopath, how kooky! I’m relieved to announce that the marketing botched this one and the movie itself is respectful, tasteful, and sympathetic toward the victims of Bundy’s madness and manipulation. When we do get sequences from Bundy’s perspective, there’s no pointless audience manipulation to attempt to sympathize or explain Bundy’s sociopathy.
Zac Efron and Lily Collins do excellent work here which helps solidify the overall effectiveness of the film. Collins is heartbreaking as a woman completely broken by the realization that the love of her life may actually be a manipulative, evil killer. Berlinger and Collins do justice to Kloepfer’s story by not painting her as a side character or a prop in a story primarily about Bundy. She is a complex character with a deep internal struggle of guilt and fear and stripped of any confidence by Bundy’s emotional violence against her. Efron is a revelation, using his own confidence, charm, and handsomeness to channel Bundy’s narcissistic delusions of grandeur. When he smiles, when he cries, when he outwardly shows any sign of emotion, Efron is careful to keep Bundy’s eyes terrifyingly dead. Behind the attractiveness and appeal, there is rage and at worst, indifference. Efron nails it.
I’ve heard many people have a problem with the way this story is told. It’s not the DEFINITIVE Ted Bundy movie in that there’s no graphic depictions of his murders, no explanation for his ways, no clear-cut understanding of how someone like this could exist. Some have argued that by not explicitly showing how evil Bundy was, the filmmakers are essentially glorifying Bundy. I couldn’t disagree more. As the audience, we know Ted Bundy is evil. We know what he did. The movie features clever, sparing sequences of specific murders being described verbally, which is uncomfortable and shocking enough. Do we need to SEE the murders happening on screen to know how truly horrific Bundy was? I don’t think so. This is a film more concerned with emotional violence.
The final scene is a mesmerizing and unforgettable moment involving a final conversation between Bundy and Kloepfer, an act of closure for both of them. She needs to know the truth and he is sitting on death row. Notice the production and costume design here, suggesting that Kloepfer is also imprisoned. Two prisoners, talking to each other from either side of a glass barrier. The immediacy and intimacy of the moment is startling, and a final shocking revelation, which acts as either a flashback or a mental vision in Kloepfer’s head, is horrible and cathartic all at once. She gets to leave and free herself, and we all know what happened to Bundy. The movie wisely lets us identify and sympathize with her freedom rather than Bundy’s imprisonment and death.
Sure, there are a few elements here and there that didn’t quite click with me and kept the movie from reaching the greatness of David Fincher’s Zodiac in terms of movies based on real serial killers. Some of the camerawork is distracting and chaotic when it should simply be still, and the overall narrative jumps around too much to get a truly cohesive flow. The movie is too short and too quick to jump through important events in Bundy’s criminal history and trial, and I wish the movie had given more breathing room for Kloepfer and her sequences not involving Bundy. Fortunately, Berlinger’s film is powerful and haunting enough to make these gripes small distractions in an otherwise fascinating film. We live in a time where so much media attention is given to the killers and not the people who knew them, who trusted them, who were manipulated by them. Bundy was indeed “extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile”, and the movie demonstrates that in unexpected and intriguing ways that have more to do with emotional violence than visual gore. There is hope and catharsis in it, not simply pain and misery.