Ted Bundy is already a killer by the time we meet him in Joe Berlinger’s “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” a mass murderer and rapist who preyed on women across the American West in the mid-’70s in horrifying ways (or, “extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile” ways; the title pulls from one of the eventual Bundy verdicts and is spoken by a judge, played by John Malkovich, late in the film). But that’s not the Bundy who first arrives on the screen: instead, it’s a handsome (he is, after all, played by Zac Efron) sweetheart who easily ingratiates himself with a shy divorcee (Lily Collins), slipping inside her relatively normal life while spending every available moment away from her raping, murdering, robbing, and desecrating the bodies of those he’s killed.
That sense of whiplash? It’s a feature, not a bug in Berlinger’s film, which walks the extremely fine line between introducing Bundy to the audience through the eyes of a woman who loved him while never shying away from the gravity of his crimes. Despite being primarily told through the perspective of Collins’ Elizabeth Kloepfer (a very real person, as so many weird things in the film are very much real), “Extremely Vile” isn’t a glossy or loving look at Bundy. More sad than salacious, it’s the rare film about a criminal that offers human details without humanizing a man who so many agree was a monster.
And yet people loved him. One of them was Kloepfer, here portrayed by Collins as an understandably cautious single mother who is ultimately charmed by Efron’s Ted. While Liz will eventually look back on certain moments in their relationship with nothing but horror — an early gag involving him holding a knife is chilling to the audience, especially as he sets Liz at ease instantly, and Berlinger doesn’t forget it when Liz reflects on their time later in the film — the early days of their romance are presented as idyllic and easy. It’s an uneasy, but smart counterpoint to any friend or family member of a criminal who shrugged their experiences off as varying versions of “he was always nice to me.” But was he really?
Collins turns in an unfussy performance as Liz, who holds tight to her humanity even when tested. Audiences will inevitably bring their own baggage to the film — if they don’t know the full extent of Bundy’s crimes, the majority will certainly know he was a murderer — and even in the moments in which Liz is making damnably dumb decisions, Collins fights to find the emotional and understandable underneath. It works, and as Liz slowly comes to realize what a horrible position she’s been placed in, the results are wrenching.
It also works because Collins has such a stellar scene partner in Efron, who appears to revel in the juicy role without lionizing Bundy. A larger than life personality, a handsome charmer who used his smooth-talking and good looks to lull his victims into a sense of security, Bundy was also a self-aggrandizing sociopath who was willing to do anything to save his own skin. If “Extremely Vile” is guilty of any major sin, it’s sticking almost too closely to the truth, running real-life footage of Bundy over the end credits, illuminating just how precisely Berlinger (best known as a documentarian, and one who just finished up a major Bundy doc alongside his narrative feature) has recreated Bundy’s criminal life.
And yet Efron, transformed here into something scary and alluring in equal measure, is able to bring his own take to the character. The actor has been clear that he didn’t go the Method route when playing Bundy, and the choice was a smart one, letting Efron explore his own angles in a complex story. He’s also able to anchor the film’s more wild twists and turns — again, all based in fact, but nutty enough to leave viewers gobsmacked and running for Bundy’s Wikipedia page once the lights go up — never winking, never letting up, and yet never forgetting what sort of monster he’s playing. The film never forgets either, and it shouldn’t — and neither should we.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” had its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.