To say that Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile boasts Zac Efron’s best work would be an understatement; Efron has always been an enigmatic leading man because he always feels like the easy choice to cast, and while he’s excelled at comedy work, this is a role that really challenges him. His performance here isn’t just that of a murderer, but that off a con man. The film presents Ted Bundy’s crimes as a mystery in which we know the answer ahead of time, but it’s the presentation of the story, in which Bundy yearns for the perception of being a wrongly framed, charming young man that makes it so intriguing.
The film chronicles the crimes of Ted Bundy (Efron) through the eyes of his longtime girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), and tracks their relationship as Bundy maintains his innocence throughout a series of trials. There’s actually very little onscreen carnage; the film takes the time to show Bundy’s manipulation of people as he blames the media and the court system for his conviction, and although a lot of the language becomes repetitive, Efron is convincing. His performance is multilayered in that Bundy wants to convince us of his innocence, and at some points, even though we know he is guilty, we’re not sure if *he* thinks his guilty. We’re seduced into his psychology, albeit in a different way than that of his victims.
This preexisting knowledge of Bundy’s crimes paints the entire film in a different light, as even the early scenes of him beginning his relationship with Liz are cast in a eerie fashion, although the beginning of their relationship is fairly rushed to get into the court cases. While the early depiction of the court cases inform the story and show us the process that Bundy went through as he navigates from hearing to hearing, they largely become repetitive and don’t become truly riveting until the final court case that decides his fate.
Perhaps this is where the story struggles, as it is shackled by history. We all know the ending of the story, and there’s never really a point in which it convinces us that Bundy will get away with it. It definitely shows how the surrounding media circus ensued in the wake of the trial, but the film isn’t really focused on the lasting impact of the legal manipulation other than to further explore Bundy as a character.
Smartly, the film reverts to focus by the end by showing how Liz retains her agency and searches for closure in her part in Bundy’s life. While the character spends time passively sitting around for a large chunk of the film, her slow rehabilitation into society makes for an interesting story. Collins gives the role her all, and although the couple’s early days are largely underdeveloped, we do get a sense of how they have evolved.
So Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is a mixed bag, and while the film strike the right tone in it’s methodical approach that builds up the most sickening moments, it also begs the question of what all of this means, and why this story was told. Is it a commentary about charisma, and if so what does it say about the significance of the Bundy case? It’s an intriguing true crime story, and the film utilizes the sentimentalization of the whole case to show the trick that Bundy pulled on so many, but other than that it’s often a hollow experience, albeit one featuring a truly magnetic leading performance. Grade: B