In the first trailer for Netflix’s “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” Hollywood heartthrob Zac Efron struts around as Ted Bundy, the infamous serial killer responsible for the sexual assaults and deaths of at least 30 women in the 1970s. Bundy is said to have been deceitfully charming, a notion the trailer seizes upon with abandon. Guitar riffs and splashy editing depict him as some sort of action hero, such that when Efron winks at the camera, it’s unclear whether his Bundy is meant to dazzle or disarm.
The trailer set off a wave of apprehension: Would “Extremely Wicked,” directed by veteran documentarian Joe Berlinger, wind up glorifying Bundy? As if to quell fears, Efron said at the Sundance Film Festival in January when the film premiered that he felt a responsibility to make sure it wasn’t a “celebration of Ted Bundy . . . But, definitely, a psychological study of who this person was.” The second trailer, released last month, noticeably took on a more somber tone.
Now that the film has hit Netflix, which picked it up at Sundance, we face a moment of truth. “Extremely Wicked” doesn’t glorify Bundy, exactly, but it makes little effort to do the opposite. By primarily focusing on Bundy’s charade instead of his psyche, as Efron suggested, Berlinger fails to properly reckon with the brutal crimes Bundy committed.
It appears the apprehension was well founded.
“Extremely Wicked” purports to tell Bundy’s story through the eyes of Liz Kendall (a solid Lily Collins), his longtime girlfriend and a single mother who met him in 1969 on a rare night out. (The film is based on her 1981 memoir, “The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy.") Berlinger doesn’t waste much time developing the early stages of their family dynamic and instead depicts the couple through Bundy’s arrests, escapes from custody and courtroom visits in the years that follow. Liz attempts to believe in his innocence — “When I feel his love, I feel like I’m on top of the world,” she reasons to a friend — until, after they break up, she descends into alcohol-fueled doldrums.
Liz isn’t the only woman on whom we witness Bundy work his tricks. In addition to the young girls who profess a love for Bundy outside of his televised trial in 1979, we encounter Carole Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario), Bundy’s former colleague who eventually marries him and gives birth to his daughter while he is on death row. Her first scene takes place at a dog pound where Liz and Bundy, still together at this point, swing by one afternoon. After an uncomfortable run-in, Liz steers Bundy away from Carole Ann and toward the dogs, one of which whimpers in fear at the sight of him.
The scene oddly implies that the dog can sense Bundy’s character more than the women in his life, which, if we are to believe in his trustworthy front, isn’t really their fault. (Though this statement might apply to Liz more than Carole Ann, who begins a romantic relationship with Bundy after he has already been charged.) By leaving all but a single murder off screen, the first two acts of “Extremely Wicked” make the case that Liz, ostensibly the film’s lens, is unaware of what Bundy does when he isn’t by her side.
Except Liz isn’t entirely unaware of Bundy’s crimes. The film’s big twist reveals that she is the one who tipped off the cops early on because she noticed that the police sketch resembled her boyfriend. “Extremely Wicked” misses out on the opportunity to explore the origins of the doubts that cripple Liz for years, instead painting her as gullible until the very end.
Paired with Bundy mocking the judicial system in courtroom scenes as sensationalized as the television coverage from that era, the heavy focus on Liz’s denial contributes to an impression that the film marvels at the serial killer more than it interrogates his actions. When Bundy draws attention to corruption within the sheriff’s department in Florida, it feels as though viewers are supposed to root for him over the prosecutors.
It’s understandable that Berlinger chose not to depict the murders, save for one sanitized scene, whether because of their horrific nature or because he wanted to tell the story from Liz’s perspective. But in devoting so much screen time to Bundy’s suaveness, “Extremely Wicked” risks downplaying his brutality — especially when it’s a dashing Efron, giving the best dramatic performance of his career, whom we see on screen. The film doesn’t explicitly discuss Bundy’s actions much — those who visit Bundy’s Wikipedia page after watching might even be surprised to learn that he was also a necrophile — nor does it adequately acknowledge how harrowing this experience must have been for the victims and their loved ones.
In the end, “Extremely Wicked” accomplishes its goal of leaving viewers with a pit in the bottom of their stomachs. But it’s difficult to determine whether that’s because of Bundy himself, or the depiction of him.