Serial killer Ted Bundy is somebody who has fascinated a lot of people for a very long time. One of the most prolific killers in modern American history, Bundy’s deeds have been the subject of film and television before, but rarely has much focus been given to those people who surrounded Bundy during the time that his name became national news. The new Netflix film Extremely Wicked Shockingly Evil And Vile attempts to do just that by telling the story of not just Bundy, but Elizabeth Kendell, Bundy’s girlfriend at the time of his initial arrest.
In Seattle in 1969, Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) is at a bar trying to get over a recently ended relationship when she meets the young and instantly magnetic Ted Bundy (Zac Efron). When he doesn’t immediately head for the hills after discovering that Liz is a single mom, Liz is impressed and a relationship quickly blossoms. Fast forwarding to 1975, Bundy is pulled over for running a stop sign, an event which eventually results in him being arrested and charged with attempted kidnapping.
Ted proclaims his innocence from the start and Liz believes him, but as Bundy’s name gets around, police in neighboring states begin to connect open cases of murder to Bundy, and what Liz believes is just a case of terrible mistaken identity becomes a great deal more.
There’s no denying that Ted Bundy is an objectively fascinating figure. The vileness of his crimes reaches a level that simply can’t be overlooked. If Extremely Wicked Shockingly Evil And Vile tried to give us a deeper understanding of who Bundy was, it would likely be a compelling story.
However, this is not that movie.
Elizabeth Kendell is, perhaps, an equally interesting figure. What goes through the mind of somebody who is truly in love with somebody who is being accused of the most heinous crimes imaginable? How does she deal (or not deal) with the mounting evidence that says her lover is guilty? There is a story to be told there to be sure.
And yet, somehow, this isn’t that movie either.
Extremely Wicked Shockingly Evil And Vile tries to tell both stories, and in doing so, it fails to give either one enough time or weight to make any sort of connection.
The first half of the movie splits its time pretty evenly between the two characters. We see Ted Bundy, a law student in his “normal” life, dealing with the courts and getting increasingly involved in his own defense. We watch Liz as she begins to spiral out of control unable to do anything but watch as the world seems to be against her boyfriend.
Then, halfway through the story, the movie shifts into a courtroom drama. After giving two previous trials only as much attention as the plot required, a third trial becomes what the second half of the movie is entirely about. Liz is all but forgotten, and Ted Bundy becomes the star of the show.
Zac Efron is the perfect casting choice to play Ted Bundy. He’s young, good looking and charismatic, just as Bundy himself was. The fact that Efron is playing against type is the point. He’s the last person you would expect to play Bundy, as Bundy was the last person you’d expect to be guilty of these crimes.
But if you were hoping to get an idea of what might have made such a man tick, you won’t find it here. We never see Bundy commit any of these terrible acts. If you were somehow able to come to this movie not knowing who Ted Bundy was, the idea that he was being wrongly accused would seem far from crazy. Because we never see the other side of Ted Bundy, we can’t begin to understand him.
Still, Efron does a good job of showing that there is something more going on behind those eyes. Something about Bundy feels off. It’s nuanced enough that while the audience will see it, it’s still understandable why so many others did not.
Liz Kendall is clearly the character Extremely Wicked Shockingly Evil And Vile is supposed to be about. She’s the only character with any sort of arc. However, because her story shares so much of the screen with Bundy, the arc feels truncated. We never get any real idea why she’s so emotionally attached to Bundy. Why is she unable to believe he is guilty? We don’t know. What happens that finally begins to change that? I’m also clueless. Lily Collins gives a fine performance. I simply wish there were more of it.
Extremely Wicked Shockingly Evil And Vile is little more than a recitation of events. Those events are certainly interesting, but it takes more than that to tell a compelling story.