Zac Efron became an overnight teen sensation after playing heartthrob Troy Bolton in Disney’s High School Musical.
Ted Bundy was an infamous serial killer known for having murdered at least 30 women in brutal fashion before he was executed in a Florida prison.
That their paths should cross via Efron’s latest film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, is at once a total surprise and a stroke of utter brilliance. Because while nothing about Efron screams “serial killer,” the two men do share one key trait: both are experts when it comes to charming their audiences.
Directed by veteran documentarian and Miami Film Festival alum Joe Berlinger — who also directed the Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes — Extremely Wicked sidesteps the urge to take the easy, salacious route, landing on a more nuanced and thought-provoking POV. Instead of putting the focus solely on Ted himself, much of the film centers around Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), Bundy’s longtime girlfriend who for years refused to believe the truth about his crimes.
We’ve all heard the phrase “you can never really know someone,” but those are words that take on a whole different meaning here. While watching Extremely Wicked, you’ll almost certainly feel a distinct amount of unease. This discomfort stems not just from the horrendous nature of the murders — it’s the fact that they were committed by someone who appeared to be so normal. A man with family, friends, coworkers, and a loving girlfriend. Much of the first half of the film deals with Liz and Ted’s relationship, with a focus on how Liz processes the accusations against him. We don’t see the murders, and we don’t see the cover-up. Berlinger’s decision to focus on Bundy’s life as seen through the eyes of his girlfriend means he’s denying us our inherent need to see the monster unmasked. It’s a risky decision that pays off in spades.
The plot takes a turn in the second half, taking us inside the Dade County Courthouse as the Bundy trial is recreated with great attention to detail. It’s here that Efron gives the best performance of his career, as Bundy turns the court proceedings into a warped type of self-aggrandizing theater. Efron’s Bundy remains a wolf in sheep’s clothing, with his true nature only revealed in brief moments – a sharp comment or a flash of unleashed temper. He nails Bundy’s mannerisms, charisma, and particular brand of unchecked narcissism with aplomb. As a society, we like easy answers and neat labels: Good. Bad. Right. Wrong. But while watching Efron flash his winning smile while dressed in his oversized bowtie, something is amiss. Our eyes and head are at odds, and the viewers are sent through something akin to an emotional tailspin.
At the end of the trial, when Dade Circuit Judge Edward D. Cowart (John Malkovich) sentences Bundy to death, he offers some final parting words: “You’re a bright young man. You would have made a good lawyer and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. Take care of yourself. I don’t feel any animosity toward you. I want you to know that.”
It’s a shockingly empathetic statement, one that’s preceded by Cowart’s assessment of Bundy’s crimes as “extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile.”
That the judge felt this sort of emotional conflict regarding the monster in front of him – that right there sums up the film’s approach to one of America’s most notorious serial killers. Berlinger skillfully manipulates our emotions as effectively as Bundy manipulated those who knew and loved him. Like Liz, the facts aren’t enough for us; we need to hear the words “I’m guilty,” see the deeds being committed, to wrap our heads around this type of disguised evil. And by withholding that from the audience, Berlinger has created a picture that forces us to look inward. By the end, Extremely Wicked makes us face head-on our public obsession with true crime, our innate bias in favor of the attractive, and question how well we truly know those we’re closest to.