Ted Bundy’s 1979 trial for the slaying of two Florida State sorority girls was, according to Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, a 2019 Sundance Film Festival premiere biopic, widely attended by … young women. They weren’t there to glower or damn, but to take a peek at the man commanding the spotlight. Bundy was a charmer — and maybe hot? His aura, combined with the fluffing of a media frenzy, filled the aisles of the courtroom where the serial killer would later earn three death sentences.
Extremely Wicked hammers home a clear, but necessary message: attractive, good-natured men can also be (1) extremely wicked (2) shockingly evil and/or (3) vile. The real surprise is how the movie conveys that duality; this is not a tense, Fincheresque thriller full of gruesome images. Instead, Zac Efron, still mesomorphic, plays the killer of women like he’s Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit, with ’70s needle drops guiding the way. Director Joe Berlinger is a meticulous documentarian — besides his renowned Paradise Lost trilogy, he’s also the filmmaker behind Netflix’s new series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes — but Extremely Wicked is a glossy crowd-pleaser, unfolding like a Bohemian Rhapsody for mass murder. Amidst our true-crime entertainment boom, the choice make perfect sense.
Michael Werwie’s script introduces us to Ted through the eyes of Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins), a single mother who falls head over heels for the wannabe lawyer at a Seattle bar in 1969. The gravitational pull of Efron is inescapable, even as a viewer; after dancing the night away, Elizabeth and Ted head back to her place, where he holds the broken-hearted woman tight, and wakes up early to fix breakfast and coffee. Their relationship takes off from there, Ted spending his days studying up on criminal law and his nights caring for his surrogate family. He’s a dapper man with a dapper plan and a not so dapper hobby.
Efron is perfect casting. There’s no calculation or carnivorous thirst behind his eyes — only swoon-worthy compassion. When he’s later arrested in Utah for aggravated kidnapping and attempted criminal assault, that smooth operating shifts to fiery resilience. Ted’s blunt with Elizabeth: he did not kidnap that woman. Nor did he kill those girls in Washington. And no way did he strangle a woman in Florida before biting her buttock.
The evidence insists that he did, of course, and our own historical perspective knows full well that he did. But Efron’s mesmerizing screen presence turns us all into Elizabeth. Even as the rap sheet unfurls with more and more gruesome acts, and Ted’s schemes to outrun law enforcement become more and more elaborate — jumping out of a courthouse’s second story window to go back on the lam is … not a great way to convince a jury you didn’t murder and bury a young woman — Ted’s lies cast doubt on his culpability. He’s sincere. He’s a lovable ham! When a detective asks him about being in Colorado during a series of killings, he exclaims “I’m an avid skier!” There are moments where Efron sounds like he’s riffing in Neighbors, and even if he’s playing one of the most malicious murderers in American history, it works.
Extremely Wicked leans in to the persona, and mileage may vary on how entertaining it ends being. Berlinger treats Ted’s court appearances and prison breakouts across a 10-year timeline like the musical milestones of a rock-star biopic. The movie is fun, yet teeters on the edge of indulgence; Ted’s trial in Florida is an antic-filled circus in which the serial killer represents himself like he’s Foghorn Leghorn in a three-piece suit. Efron crushes the shtick, but we never get the implicit slap on the wrists that The Wolf of Wall Street gives to a maniac like Jordan Belfort, and Collins drifts too far away from the movie to offer the hammer drop we need, even when it slams down.
Berlinger’s movie arrives at a peculiar time when serial killers hold celebrity status. Podcasts, TV shows, and multi-part documentaries galore put their names in lights. Audiences show up, wanting every gory, little detail of violent madness. There’s little connection to the victims, who exist like statistics on a murder’s baseball card. We’re locked on the mystery of the star, who may never make sense, no matter how much we see, hear, and learn. By the end of Extremely Wicked, we’re not so much Elizabeth as we are the fawning girls filling the courtroom, loving every second of Ted’s diversion tactics. Unlike the courtroom girls, we also get to see Efron’s naked butt — even a serial killer drama can be a little thirsty.
Extremely Wicked plays the hits (er, the ungodly criminal offenses) so that, like Rami Malek lip-syncing the hell out of Queens’ back catalogue, Efron shines like a star. He’s so good that, in the end, Berlinger teasing out footage of the actual Ted Bundy at work feels like whiplash. The real thing’s too real. The killer’s career may have been extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile, but Efron made him extremely watchable, shockingly easy-going, and villainous, in a Hollywood way.