Review by David Baldwin
For as far back as I can remember, I have had Sundance Film Festival FOMO. Going to Cannes will likely remain a pipe dream for the foreseeable future, but the prospect of going to Sundance is much more attainable — just a matter of the stars lining up in just the right pattern (and my wife granting me permission to skip her birthday to spend a week in Utah). Until both of those things happen or Hell freezes over, I will continue to sit by idly paying attention to all of the buzz coming out of the festival every January and make a mental list of all my must-see films.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile was one of those films and was one I assumed I would have to wait until the Fall to see at TIFF. Thankfully, the film showed up a whole lot earlier. The buzz has remained high ever since the January premiere and I have heard and read the word “Oscar” being thrown around in a completely serious way. And when that happens, it can go one of two ways: it can be warranted or absolutely preposterous. And despite the lengthy and obnoxious title, I hoped it was the former and not the latter on this one.
Based on true events, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile tells the story of Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) and her boyfriend Ted Bundy (Zac Efron). She is a single mother with a young daughter when we first meet her, and he is the lovely young man she is instantly smitten with. They fall in love and spend a few years together — until Ted is arrested on a traffic violation. But the police suspect he might be involved with an assault in another state as well as some rather ghastly murders. Ted swears he is innocent, but as time goes on, Liz is not quite sure.
Despite the macabre content and frankly outrageous timeline of events (which is much too crazy to be fabricated), Director Joe Berlinger has crafted a riveting picture of a truly heinous individual. From the moment the film starts right until its ending, Berlinger digs in deep to show how someone like Bundy could have gone undetected for so long. And while his choice of barely depicting the crimes on screen is respectful, tasteful and fairly surprising (he uses archived news footage to tell us what happened instead), it only helps to hammer home this very point. We know not to empathize with this monster early on, but by telling the film through Liz’s eyes, the film has a way of toying with your emotions and that feeling only gets more pronounced and upsetting with each passing moment.
Where Berlinger stumbles — beyond his frustrating desire to over-saturate the colours in every single scene — is the film’s second half, where it stops focusing on Liz’s experiences and starts putting more emphasis on the trial that puts Bundy on the path to death row. Berlinger’s experiences as a documentarian make for some fascinating storytelling (his only other narrative feature is the long forgotten Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2), but he is a bit too clinically precise in what he depicts on screen here. These courtroom scenes lack the edge of everything that comes before and seem better suited as part of his popular Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes Netflix series. I admire his striving for authenticity, but it really messes with the film’s momentum and the crux of what the film is really about. We do not care about Bundy defending himself in the courtroom, we care about the farce he created and the lies he kept maintaining right until the very end. These elements are there, but they take far too much of a backseat in favour of real life recreations.
While he may have issues with his storytelling, Berlinger has put together an impressive collection of supporting actors to fill out the characters surrounding Liz and Ted including Jeffrey Donovan, Dylan Baker, Westworld‘s Angela Sarafyan, Brian Geraghty, Jim Parsons, John Malkovich, Kaya Scodelario and Haley Joel Osment (yes, the kid who probably can still see dead people). They each put in some great work, with Scodelario and Osment being the clear standouts. Collins herself is also quite excellent, really tuning into the anguish, confusion and depression her character goes through over the course of the film. She communicates an astounding amount through her facial expressions alone and the film could have only benefited from using her even more.
But the real treasure to behold is Efron’s performance as Bundy. As the hype suggested, his work here is the real deal and is easily his best work to date. He commands the screen in a way that no one else even gets the chance to do. He is captivating in every single one of his scenes and does a brilliant job communicating that knowing spark in his eyes and movements that suggests he’s hiding something. The film does Efron a disservice in the ending when it slows down and highlights some of the more nuanced elements of his performance — suggesting places where Liz should have picked up on who Ted really was. But as an audience, we do not need to be re-shown these scenes because Efron is already doing a great job of showcasing these hidden traits. But even saying that, some of the scenes that come after that are chilling to say the least. His work here is a revelation, and while I am apprehensive to say he will get recognized with an Oscar nomination, this surely will be one of the year’s best performances.
While it is not perfect and has a bit of a wordy title, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is engrossing and gripping, and is anchored by a fantastic performance from Zac Efron. And while 2007-era me would be horrified at the prospect of typing out that sentence about the kid from High School Musical, his work here truly does need to be seen to be believed.