Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Movie Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Joe Berlinger.   
Written by: Michael Werwie based on the book by Elizabeth Kendall.
Starring: Zac Efron (Ted Bundy), Lily Collins (Liz Kendall), Kaya Scodelario (Carole Anne Boone), John Malkovich (Judge Edward D. Cowart), Jeffrey Donovan (Utah Defense Attorney John O'Connell),Angela Sarafyan (Joanna), Dylan Baker (Utah Prosecutor David Yocom), Brian Geraghty (Florida Public Defender Dan Dowd), Jim Parsons  (Florida Prosecutor Larry Simpson), Haley Joel Osment (Jerry Thompson),Macie Carmosino (2 Yr Old Molly), Ava Inman (4 Yr Old Molly), Morgan Pyle (8 Yr Old Molly), James Hetfield (Officer Bob Hayward), Grace Victoria Cox (Carol Daronch), Terry Kinney (Detective Mike Fisher), Grace Balbo (Teenage Molly). 
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is a Ted Bundy movie that makes no real effort to understand who Ted Bundy was. In most cases, that would be a failure for a movie like this – we go into biopics of famous people, even people famous for being, well, extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile, to see what makes them tick – to get inside for a little while to see what was there. But this movie doesn’t do that. It presents Bundy as Bundy presented himself to the outside world – mostly, how he projected himself to Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), his longtime girlfriend, who stuck by Bundy for a long time after he was arrested, and started going on trial for the shocking murders he committed. Even when she is able to break free, it’s not a clean break – she’s haunted by him, and the vision she had of him, versus the vision of him presented on the news. It’s driven her to alcoholism and depression. And she isn’t really able to let go of him until the final scene – when he’s already of death row in Florida – when he finally really gives her a glance at the other Ted Bundy – the one who killed all those people. This is perhaps the least violent film I have seen about a serial killer – but it’s still extremely disturbing.
Casting Zac Efron as Bundy was an inspired choice by director Joe Berlinger. Efron, the former teen heart throb of High School Musical fame, has attempted to do some interesting work in his post teen idol days – and has proven surprisingly adept at picking the right projects for himself, from Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy (not well received, but he’s quite good in it) to the Seth Rogen comedy Neighbors to The Greatest Showman. Hell, he came out of Baywatch completely unscathed. He is a movie star, even if Hollywood doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with him. Here, he leans into Bundy’s charm, his nice guy appeal. There is a reason Bundy was often able to talk women into his car, when they should have known better, in order to murder them. And there is a reason he became a celebrity once arrested – one with many adoring female fans, who thought he was handsome and charming. Bundy, of course, was the antithesis of what you expect a crazed serial killer and rapist to look like. That’s why he succeeded.
We see Efron throughout put on that charm. From his first date with Collins’ Liz, when he comes home to her house to discover she has a daughter, and doesn’t bat an eye – hell, he even makes them both breakfast the next day. It’s fairly early in the movie when he starts being arrested – in Utah for kidnapping, then being extradited to Colorado on murder charges. Liz goes to see him, talks to him on the phone. He has an explanation for everything, and it makes sense – kind of. Berlinger resists the urge to do the easy thing here – which would be to contrast the domestic tranquility of Liz and Ted’s life with the murders he commits. We don’t see any of them.
Berlinger knows Bundy and his story well – he made The Ted Bundy Tapes, that four-hour, four part Netflix documentary released earlier this year about Bundy, and during the course of this film, he will have recreated many of those famous moments. Efron has clearly studied Bundy and his mannerisms and voice a long time, and does an expert job at mimicking that. But it goes beyond that as well – much like in those interviews, there are moments when Efron allows the darker side of Bundy to emerge – sometimes just for a fleeting moment – when it can become truly frightening. But then he recovers, and goes right on.
There are a few things to hold the film back from being truly great. The first is I’m not convinced the film really has all that much interest in Liz herself. Collins isn’t give all that much to do after Bundy is in jail – expect to drink and smoke a lot, and stare off in space to signal her depression. It makes sense to see Bundy just from her point-of-view, but then, I kind of think we should have seen her more clearly than we do here. (the movie, I think, is more interested in Carole Anne Boone, the woman who becomes Bundy’s girlfriend when he’s already in jail. Played in a very good performance by an unrecognizable Kaya Scodelario) And second, I think Berlinger falls a little too in love with recreating those famous moments we saw in the documentary in this film. One could argue it makes sense – again, if we are seeing Bundy through Liz’s eyes, at this point, her only interactions with him was through the TV screen. Still, it makes the whole thing seem a little more surface level than it probably should be.
The final scene is a stunner though – I’m not sure if it’s based on reality or not, but it fits the movie almost like an exclamation point – a definitive end to their relationship, and perhaps the only sign in the movie we have that there may actually be a human being inside Bundy, who until then was complete husk of a man.

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