“Extremely wicked, shockingly evil, vile, and with utter indifference to human life.” These were the words a judge used to describe the crimes of convicted serial killer Ted Bundy. But these heinous homicides are not the focus of the biopic named for them. The film won’t focus on his murder victims either, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who saw director Joe Berlinger’s companion piece, the documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Instead, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile claims to focus on Elizabeth Kendall, the single-mom whose world was thrown into a spin when her longtime boyfriend was arrested under suspicion of being a notorious serial killer. But in truth, Berlinger’s latest uses Kendall as a Trojan Horse to further explore his gruesome fascination with the reported charms of Bundy.
Allegedly, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is based on Kendall’s memoir, The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy. But the film itself seems shockingly disinterested in Kendall. Her life before Bundy is summed up with a single lament about being a single-mom and secretary who no man would notice. Cue Bundy’s penetrating stare. One impromptu date of dancing, chatting and cuddling, and the film leaps into a montage of home videos, racing through years of Liz (Lily Collins) and Ted’s (Zac Efron) relationship, while none-too-subtly overlaying audio of news reports about murdered young women. In the blink of an eye, Liz’s infant girl is in grade school, and she’s wondering if the man she let help raise her daughter is a merciless murderer.
While Bundy lies to the police, escapes his bonds (twice), and makes a mockery of the Florida courts with sideshow antics that include proposing to a witness on the stand, Liz gets little dimension. A smattering of scenes reveals she is undecided on Bundy’s guilt and carries some of her own. Sometimes she’s sad. Sometimes she’s drunk. Sometimes she’s sharing a steamy love scene with a ripped Bundy in a warm-colored flashback. (Make no mistake, this Bundy f*cks!) But mostly, she’s a thinly sketched character, who speaks her feelings directly, because why take the time for nuance when we have a swaggering serial killer to ogle? (Cue Efron flex.) Ultimately, Liz is a transparent facade of concern to allow Berlinger to trot out Bundy’s most outrageous behavior. But not really. Not the horrendous crimes that ended lives and shattered families. Just the good-for-movie trailers stuff of acting up in courtrooms or in front of the press.
Watching this film, I thought back on an interview I conducted recently with esteemed crime journalist Billy Jensen. In part, we talked about Jensen’s reactions to Berlinger’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and the trailer for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile. Like me, Jensen felt the doc series had a troubling disinterest in Bundy’s victims. And he worried a similarly dehumanizing depiction of them would be offered in the latter. It is. There is no effort to present these women as anything other than props of tragedy porn. Sometimes they are named in passing. Mostly, they are referred to as “those girls.” In two instances, crime scene photos of their nude and mutilated corpses are displayed. You won’t see their faces. You won’t know their stories. But you will be invited to view their bodies as ghoulish spectacle, all while Efron essentially tap dances with a manic menace. At the very end, a list of their names will be offered as a title card like one last shock by sheer volume. But mostly, they are the backdrop, almost presented more as a thing that happens to Bundy rather than vice versa.
Watching the film, I felt both relieved and revolted that most of his crimes aren’t shown onscreen. After seeing Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, I didn’t trust Berlinger to handle such subject matter with respect or thoughtfulness. I thought about David Fincher’s Zodiac, in which the scenes of the crimes are dedicatedly re-enacted with chilling authenticity. You witness violence but never feel a lurid invitation to gawk. Fincher’s treatment urges audiences to see how real people on a mundane day saw their lives and their bodies ripped apart by a random madman. Still, I was disturbed that Berlinger doesn’t depict Bundy’s atrocious acts, because their absence creates a distance between them and the handsome man pleading his innocence. Having his crimes calmly recounted by a prim prosecutor (a distracting Jim Parsons) doesn’t have the same impact as an image would. And if you didn’t watch the doc series, you’ll miss out on many of the most damning details, which Berlinger chose to ditch in the biopic. (For instance, gone is Bundy’s admittance that he got off on hearing a traumatized, testifying officer describe the corpses found out the scene of his sorority house slaughter.) But mostly, I thought about something Jensen had said to me about one particular detail that he was confident Extremely Wicked would leave out.
“Show [the audience] what this guy took away,” Jensen says. “Don’t just show a teenage heartthrob like Zac Efron taking his shirt off and being all ripped. Are you going to show the horrible things that [Bundy] did? Are you going to show that he cut off a woman’s head, took it back home and raped it? You’re not going to show that in the movie. That wouldn’t probably be good for your movie.”
His comment about the head stuck with me. I spent much of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile wondering and worrying what the film would show. I thought how on death row Bundy confessed to revisiting the bodies for necrophilic purposes. And then came the final sequence, where Liz confronts Ted with a crime scene photo I can’t unsee. A woman’s corpse lies decapitated and bare-breasted, abandoned on a forest floor. Liz demands to know what happened to the head. I knew what happened. Movie Ted gives an answer, but not the full, terrible truth. Once more Berlinger goes easy on Bundy, obscuring the breadth of his depravity and inhumanity. Yet, as giddy as he is to dedicate screentime to Efron’s hot bod and Bundy’s flirtations and manipulations, he has little sympathy for the women who fell for Bundy’s lies.
A montage in the third act gawks in shock over the women who turned up to watch the trial unfold. Asked why they are so interested, they blush and fumble for an answer. But don’t worry! There’s a man on hand to explain these women have a “sexual attraction” to Bundy. Clearly, we’re meant to be repulsed by these women’s fascination, just as we are Carole Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario), who courted, married, and gave birth to Bundy’s daughter all when he was in prison. And by extension, aren’t we invited to judge Liz too? Shouldn’t she have known? Ted did have a bit of a temper. He did rip her shirt during sex that one time. As if either is a clear indication that someone is a sexual sadist who murders women and rapes corpses.
Honestly, I suspect Berlinger wants us to see Liz as an everywoman who was just seeking love. But for the grace of God go we, right? Perhaps he intends her story might as a cautionary tale or a warning. But that angle is lost when her arc plays as filler wedged in between Ted’s antics. And when combined with the other representations of women who fell for Ted, what emerges instead is an ooze of misogyny. Berlinger didn’t choose to give voice to women who felt scared to walk home alone to go to bed because of Bundy’s crimes. No follow-up is offered on how abduction survivor Carol Daronch felt during Bundy’s escapes or trial. But women weren’t the only ones fooled by Bundy. Even the film shows the cops whose lax supervision allowed him to escape twice and kill more, and the judge who handed down the death sentence while lamenting, “You’re a bright young man. You’d have made a great lawyer. I’d have loved to have seen you practice in front of me.”
The lesson to learn from Bundy’s crime spree is not ‘If only women didn’t think he was so sexy!’ Bundy would have been a murderer regardless. But he would likely have gotten away with less if he wasn’t so keenly able to exploit how American society bends over backward to make excuses for even moderately attractive white men, and how American culture regards the death of young white women as scandalous entertainment. In both of his ponderously named Bundy offerings, Berlinger fails to explore privilege and sexism of the Bundy era. Which show 30 years after Bundy’s execution, we’re still falling for this manipulative murderer’s traps.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile made its New York Premiere last night at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is now on Netflix.
Header Image Source: Netflix