Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile was always destined for controversy. It’s the fate of any film that would dare tell the story of Ted Bundy, one of America’s most notorious serial killers. And yet, it’s been a particularly bumpy road for director Joe Berlinger, after the film’s first trailer, released to coincide with its Sundance Film Festival premiere, presented something truly alarming. Here was a snapshot of Bundy – the man who, before his execution in 1989, confessed to the murder of 30 young women and girls, with the total number of victims thought to be much higher – played by Zac Efron as a conman antihero, à la Catch Me If You Can, evading the law to a gritty rock soundtrack.
Yet, the truth is, it’s not moral vacuity that makes the film feel so unsatisfactory as a portrait of Bundy and his crimes. Rather, the director’s own past as a true-crime documentarian – his series Conversations With a Killer, sourced from more than 100 hours of Bundy footage, was released on Netflix earlier this year – results in a film so fixated on observation that we’re left without hope of understanding Bundy’s mind and the profound horrors that lay deep within it. Extremely Wicked certainly doesn’t glamourise Bundy, but it does somewhat sanitise him.
The film attempts to reframe Bundy’s story through the perspective of Elizabeth Kloepfer, a single mother who remained his girlfriend well into his incarceration in 1976. In Berlinger’s film, she’s renamed Liz Kendall, as she calls herself in the autobiography that Michael Werwie’s screenplay takes its basis from. As played by Lily Collins, Liz allows us to explore the lingering mystery of Bundy: how could a man who seemed so normal to the outside world be capable of such depravity? It’s an interesting approach that offsets many of the complaints that our true-crime obsessions risk disregarding the victims. Liz may have been spared, but she knew too well what a destructive force he was on the world.