Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Directed by Joe Berlinger
Screenplay by Michael Werwie based on “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy” by Elizabeth Kloepfer
Starring Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, Jeffrey Donovan, Jim Parsons, John Malkovich
A curious set of events befell me as I undertook this assignment to review Joe Berlinger’s “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” which debuts on Netflix on May 3 and opened the 2019 Phoenix Film Festival. We were invited to our press screening knowing that we were going to be interviewing Mr. Berlinger and as I watched the film unfold, I couldn’t help but repress a smile.
Zac Efron’s performance as Ted Bundy, the infamous serial killer who was finally executed in 1989, was electrifying. I knew, instinctively that it was Efron who was performing, but he was in such command of his performance that I was in awe. His performance wasn’t filled with a set of hijinks. There was something much more sinister afoot and it is a completely different role for him.
When we sat down with Mr. Berlinger, and you can read our interview with him, he confirmed what I suspected to be the case: that “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” is a sadistic, dark comedy, and yet, there is very little on screen violence.
You might ask me when you see me in the corridors of a theatre why that was an important distinction for me to make. And I’ll tell you it’s because this is not Ted Bundy’s story. This is, in fact, Liz’s story about how they first met in Washington State and their romance blossomed. She remained by Ted’s side as he went from jail to jail to, finally prison in Florida.
Efron could not have pulled off his performance without the help of Lily Collins as Liz Kendall. When they were on screen together, you could easily see why they would have made the perfectly normal couple. Her composure throughout the entire ordeal is something I’ve only seen on a politician’s face when they realize they’ve made a mistake, but won’t or can’t admit it. Collins evoked a very quiet, personal fear that matched Efron’s controlled command.
It was rather funny to see Efron come unglued during his trial. A law student and extremely well versed, his trial in Florida, presided by Judge Edward Cowart, Bundy went toe to toe with the judge. It was interesting to see the trial from afar, not necessarily through Liz’s point of view, but that of the public’s point of view where, Liz blended in with the rest of America. Bundy’s trial was the first to be nationally televised in 1989.
Performances aside, I can understand the reaction from the critics at Sundance. “Extremely Wicked” is a lot to take in. But, this film is a commentary on the state of media in this country and our obsession with “if it bleeds, it leads.”
That’s why it was almost heartbreaking for me to hear Malkovich recite Cowart’s statement during Bundy’s sentencing. (Before seeing the film, I had not heard that speech, so it was a fresh, raw experience.) Brandon Trost’s (“Can You Ever Forgive Me”) cinematography during that scene really enhances just how powerful that interaction was.
The former black listed screenplay from fellow Wisconsinite, Michael Werwie sat in a desk somewhere collecting dust until, just like in the movie, someone’s people called their people to call other people to make this deal happen. And it so happens that it landed in director Joe Berlinger’s lap. Mr. Berlinger is known for being an award winning documentarian, and in fact, then Mr. Werwie’s script was brought to his attention, he was already working on the Ted Bundy documentary, “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.” In fact that documentary premiered on Netflix the same day that “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” premiered at Sundance earlier this year and makes for an excellent companion piece.
Mr. Berlinger’s documentary background was perfectly suited for “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” both as a black comedy and a social satire on the state of media today, 20 years after the Bundy’s trial.
As the film rolled in the Cine Capri at the Harkins Scottsdale 101, with a capacity crowd, I realized just how true Joe Berlinger’s film rings. It took a compelling performance from the entire cast, but it was much more than that. This is one of the better-nuanced dramas I’ve seen this year.
3 out of 4 stars