Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile
Award-winning documentarian Joe Berlinger has spent much of his career investigating issues of justice and going beyond the headlines to find deeper stories of the accused. In collaboration with the late Bruce Sinofsky, his films including Brother’s Keeper and the Paradise Lost trilogy explored how perceptions and prejudice marred the search for justice. In the bio-pic drama Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, he looks at something even more elusive, the charisma of the killer, and how evil sometimes shows up with a charming smile.
It’s fitting that Berlinger’s project is released in tandem with his extensive non-fiction examination of the same subject, The Ted Bundy Tapes. Each project provides a contrasting facet to the story of this convicted killer. In many ways, Extremely Wicked exists as the antithesis of the normal serial killer film. Gone are the visceral recreations of the act, the salacious encounters that make audiences see the brutality and make it easier to judge the character.
Instead of the thriller that might be expected (or even desired by some), we have a character study, where one charming and intelligent man, exhibiting kindness to women and children alike, has a secret, horrific life that’s hidden from us. This is what makes the casting of Zac Efron truly inspired. The actor’s own undeniable charm makes the underlying awfulness even more challenging to comprehend.
Beyond the mere fascination of the criminal act, Extremely Wicked delves into the quotidian behavior of Bundy, making everything from a large kitchen knife cutting vegetables to a playful encounter with the daughter of his girlfriend, Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins), fill viewers with a cold sense of dread. In some ways, the general ease of behavior is reminiscent of Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, a tale told backwards where the horror of the beginning mars the kindness that takes place later in the film.
During the trial when explicit crime photographs emerge, one witnesses the barbarity of what this smiling character is suspected to have done. Cross-cutting with actual news footage to buttress the film’s true-life storyline, there’s a consistent collision between Bundy’s compelling and believable pleas of innocence and what we know, or at least are told (as we don’t witness ourselves), of the severity of his actions.
This will prove incredibly unsettling to some viewers. Somehow, by the film not having any scenes of Bundy being brutal, we’re left to rely only on our own preconceptions and the evidence presented in court. This is perhaps the film’s greatest strength and most subtle indictment. Never does it make Bundy’s actions sympathetic, but it does humanize both the person and those around, making sense of a girlfriend who could not reconcile the person she knew for years and the monster he hid from her.
This is of course even more chilling than some half-baked reconstruction. When the devil takes on a smiling face, it’s all the more troubling. We want our killers to be like Damien Echols in West Memphis – ghoulish looking, sulky, raven haired, listening to angry music. The attractive, charismatic Bundy belies all those prejudices.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is a fascinating addition to Joe Berlinger’s canon. It takes the documentarian’s eye for detail and presents a film more subtle than may be expected from the subject matter. Some of it drags and some feels repetitive, but as an exercise in drawing us into a dark tale without resorting to the histrionics of the serial killer genre, it’s chilling. So often, neighbors of killers talk about how “normal” they seemed, making the dichotomy between appearance and action that much more unpredictable. This is the true evil at the heart of the story, and Berlinger’s film, like few others, refuses to shy away from the hidden horror that lies beneath the smiling face of Ted Bundy.