Sunday, May 19, 2019

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Director: Joe Berlinger
Starring: Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Angela Sarafyan, Dylan Baker, Brian Geraghty, Terry Kinney, Haley Joel Osment, James Hetfield, Grace Victoria Cox, Jim Parsons
Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The observation that notorious serial killer Ted Bundy "seemed like such a nice, regular guy" or "the last person you'd suspect" has almost become a cliché. We've heard it so many times, from both those who remember his murderous rampage when it happened, and even from a future generation exposed to him through documentaries like Joe Berlinger's Netflix's Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. But in adapting his own documentary into the feature, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Berlinger takes a route few filmmakers have in trying to bring Bundy's depravity to the screen. He casts an actor entirely known for and defined by his affable charm and looks. And he doesn't ask him to trade on them, play it with a wink, or even give so much as the subtlest hint that he's a psychopathic monster.

When Zac Efron was selected to play Bundy the conversation didn't revolve around whether the somewhat unproven actor had the chops or could handle material this dark. That would remain to be seen while we wrestled with the bigger question of whether it was the most obvious of stunt casting. Well, it's not. The film has some problems that prevent him from going to the places he likely imagined he would, but he rises to the challenge anyway, making for a chilling Bundy by just simply being present and not trying too hard. At points, he even bares a surprising physical resemblance to the late killer, and it's to Berlinger's credit that Efron never rests on it, as both legitimately attempt to distinguish this film from the director's own superior documentary in ways both good and bad.

While this doesn't come close to equaling the raw power of the non-fictional account, that's expected when you're competing with footage of the real Bundy defending himself in court in what would be the nation's first televised trial and media circus. And that's just one of the many bizarre developments that are dramatized here, somehow supplementing our already existing knowledge of actual events. So Berlinger shifts our entry point, heavily focusing on Ted's relationship with his ex-wife, until he doesn't, before managing to circle back to it again. Keeping us at arm's length, this won't be confused with Zodiac or Netflix's own Mindhunter in terms of criminal psychology or quality. But as an overview of Bundy's crimes, it works just well enough, mostly due to that skillfull lead performance.

When aspiring lawyer Ted Bundy (Efron) meets college student and single mother, Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) at a Seattle bar in 1969, it's pretty much love at first sight for both. Liz's only concern is his potential reaction to the fact she has a daughter, which proves to be a non-factor when Ted is not only accepting of this revelation, but overjoyed to the point that he soon moves in with them. As they grow closer, news reports flood in about the murders of multiple young women at Lake Sammamish, with witnesses placing a young man resembling Ted's decription at the scene. After the release of a police composite sketch and some phone tips, he's arrested in 1975, even as he complains about it being a huge misunderstanding. The excuses ring hollow when he's positively identified by one of his victims in court, resulting in a 15-year sentence at Utah State Prison.  But before he can serve it, he's transferred to Colorado in 1977, where he's charged with the murder of Caryn Campbell. Unfortunately, that's just the beginning. 

Wrestling with the guilt and denial that her husband's a serial killer, Liz turns to alcohol to numb the pain, while a sideshow of unprecedented proportions play out in both the media and courtroom, as Ted not only manages to escape due to police incompetence, but somehow claim more victims. In an embarassing spectacle, he mocks the judicial system by serving as his own trial attorney, and envelopes another young woman in his web of deceit, reconnecting with Carol Anne Boone (Kaya Scoledario), an old law school friend who's obsessed with Ted, arriving in Florida to fight for his acquittal and act as his media spokesperson. As the public's fixation on Bundy continues long after his trial, Liz still must come to grips with the fact she married a monster. But to fully let go, she may need to have one final confrontation with the man she thought she knew.

Both as a dramatic story and matter of public record, Ted Bundy's case ranks among the strangest in true crime. And not just because of how he looked and came off since any psychiatrist who spent more than a few minutes with him knew they were in the presence of a sick sociopath. It's the details of the case that prove to be so mind-blowing and Berlinger cherry picks the biggest, most memorable moments of his documentary series and successfully dramatizes them here.

The script hits key events like Ted's two (!) improbable escapes from police custody, the failure of authorities across multiple states to successfully capture, or even identify, America's most wanted fugitive, press-hungry Florida Sheriff Ken Katsaris' (Kevin McClatchy) public humiliation of Ted on live TV, and the incredible speech delivered by Judge Edward Cowart (John Malkovich), inspiring  the film's title. It's strange hearing the Malkovich deliver it, temporarily forgoing his usual biting, sacastic tone for an excursion into sincerity and profound disappointment. It's a testament to the documentary's power that even an actor of his caliber can't match the footage of Cowart delivering it.

Berlinger pretty much abandons the device of telling this story from Liz's point of view once the trial starts, almost completely marginalizing Collins' role. She's a smokescreen for what ultimately becomes the Ted Bundy Show, as Efron takes full advantage of some of the killer's bigger showboating moments, with a courthouse packed with swooning young girls trying to get a glimpse of Ted as if he was a rock star. 

If smaller, supporting roles like Haley Joel Osment's as Liz's co-worker and Jim Parsons' as a prosecuting attorney don't seem to add much as a whole, there is one that the movie gets completely right. Even with barely a handful of scenes, the eccentric, somewhat terrifyingly bespeckled Carol Anne Boone is perfectly realized by Kaya Scoledario, capturing every unnerving physical and psychological detail of her creepy obsession with Ted. Those searching for a mirror into the public's fascination with this man and his crimes need not look any further than her desperate, vacant eyes.

In many ways, the film might best be remembered for what isn't included. Most notably, the actual crimes. Berlinger makes what must have been a very concious decision not to show anything, relying instead on news clips and audio recordings to convey the horror of these killings. With one very brief exception, it's left to our imagination how he gained his victims' trust and lured them in, or the discomfort and eventual terror they must have felt in his presence. While there's always a fear of exploitation in bringing true life tragedies to the screen, it can sometimes be equally insulting not to show anything, or appear to be brushing it under the rug.

No one "wants" to see a graphic reenactment of Bundy's crimes, but the decision to encapsulate them news report or documentary style is equally questionable, often relegating his victims to statistics instead of real people with lives and families. And yet it's easy understanding Berlinger's resistance in showing anything, at least for the sake of stopping Efron from veering into Dexter territory, alternating between his "normal" life and dark hobby as a serial killer. The best thing about his work is how it doesn't fall prey to any of that, giving no glimpses into his poisoned soul as he effortlessly plays us just as Ted did Liz.

After seeing Extremely Wicked, you'll still have a tough time remembering the names of any victims, and not just because we hardly see a single killing. Instead, the film seems intent on serving up a social warning that's just as timely now, while doing little to dispel notion that the media is more than willing to make celebrities out of killers looking for their 15 minutes. Thirty years after being put to death, Bundy's still extending his.

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