Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is not biopic on real life serial killer Ted Bundy. Rather than simply chronicle his crime spree in detail, the film takes a more unusual approach and shows it from the perspective of a long time girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer. It does so to mixed results. The film is not without merit however, containing several moments of subtle brilliance before ending on a deeply unsettling and powerful note.
Many films on Bundy have attempted, with limited success, to simply re-enact his crimes on screen. Extremely Wicked instead shifts our attention away from the grisly details and focuses on Elizabeth and her long relationship with the serial killer. The pair shared a home for several years before Bundy’s crimes came to light, and for a long time, Elizabeth refused to believe the man she loved was a monster.
Lilly Collins and Zac Efron play Elizabeth and Bundy respectively, and both do a very good job. Collins offers the audience a sympathetic lead that we genuinely care for in the first half of the film, and it’s a shame she didn’t get more screen time. Efron is of course making the rounds for his portrayal of the notorious serial killer, and for good reason. He offers perhaps the best ever portrayal of one of America’s worst serial killers.
With rare exception, the film doesn’t let us see that monster. The parts of Bundy’s life we do see are only the ones that Elizabeth sees. As such, the film contains little violence. All we see are the very public trails for those events, and the impacts they have on Elizabeth. Not showing us the murders is the central component to the film’s deeply unsettling strategy. Withholding the crimes from the viewer leaves us no better versed than Elizabeth. Putting us in her shoes, the film leaves the audience vulnerable to Bundy’s charm.
For the entire film, all the audience sees is a well adjusted and all around charming family man. The film offers no evidence to contradict this masquerade, even as Bundy transforms his murder trial into a circus. Every time Bundy spins a contrived tale of why he’s innocent, we’re rarely given anything to contradict his claims.
At times, this strategy works masterfully. This is especially true in the first half of the film where Elizabeth shares the most screen time with Bundy. The pair has good chemistry, even if we do see the subtle signs of the serial killer’s notoriously manipulative behavior. Elizabeth is a fully realized character, and because of that, we care what happens to her.
It’s around the halfway point that the film starts slipping. The film goes into great detail chronicling Bundy’s various escapes from prison and his subsequent arrest. Most of the second half is devoted to the notorious trial for the sorority house murders in Florida, including his public proposal to murder groupie, Carol Anne Boone. The scenes are well put together and captivating. They also are the first instance that the film gives us the grisly details of what Bundy’s crimes, and the strength of the evidence against him.
The problem with this second half is Elizabeth, or rather how the script neglects her. A strong presence in the early parts of the film, Elizabeth is eventually reduced to a series of cutaways, giving an abridged account of her descent into alcoholism and feelings of guilt over giving Bundy’s name to the police.
In allowing Bundy to grandstand, the film actually misses some unique opportunities to show the deeper impacts Bundy’s trial had on Elizabeth. Her life is so abridged that some of the most important people in her life, such as a friend who confronts her about Bundy’s guilt, aren’t even named onscreen. Even her meeting and falling in love with her future husband is reduced to a series of footnotes, which is a shame as Elizabeth’s love interest is played by none other than Haley Joel Osment, who manages to do a good job in spite of the limited material he’s given.
One wonders if the short running time has something to do with it. Has the film been longer, perhaps only by ten to 15 minutes, that may have been all the extra time it needed to give Elizabeth a greater sense of purpose. Right now, Elizabeth’s story, which is the most important part of the film, feels rushed.
For its flaws, the movie ends with a gut punch. Shortly before his execution, Elizabeth spoke with Bundy over the phone, during which time he offered an ambiguous confession. The film transforms this conversation into a face to face confrontation where Elizabeth holds Bundy accountable. It’s also the only time the film allows us to witness one of Bundy’s murders.
In the film’s final scene, Elizabeth, now convinced of Bundy’s guilt, visits him in prison, asking him what happened to one of his victims. Though initially combative, Bundy yields. What follows is a flashback to Bundy’s only onscreen killing. The scene is unapologetically brutal, aided greatly by a chilling use of sound design that punctuates the violence. Withholding this unambiguous sign of Bundy’s guilt for so long was a risky move, but it does pay off. We actually feel a little of the betrayal felt by Elizabeth in this moment. Bundy, and the film itself, have lied to us the entire time. When we finally get the truth, it stings.
The film still misses some unique opportunities here. Of all Bundy’s real life murders, this one actually came into the home he shared with Kloepfer. After beheading the victim, he disposed of her skull in their living room fireplace. Why the film omits this horrific detail is unclear. For the ugliness of this one scene, it could have been uglier, and made the point that much more eloquently. In spite of that, the scene is well played and upsetting. Had the film been as good as this one moment, it might have been a masterpiece.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile is a flawed film with a noble agenda. It attempts to tell the story of one of Bundy’s surviving victims and her subsequent triumph over him. It’s biggest problem is it doesn’t give that enough focus. To put it frankly, the movie has too much Bundy, and not enough Elizabeth.
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