“Show no emotion at all.”
Let me just get this out the way: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (which I’ll simply refer to as “Extremely Wicked” to avoid my own confusion) might have one of the worst titles of all-time. It actually makes me wish this one had been released in theaters instead of being bought by the streaming giant, if only to hear everyone in line butcher the horrifically clumsy six word title. As for the merits of the picture itself, Extremely Wicked is decidedly average, mostly avoiding the pitfalls of potentially painting its murderous sociopath in a positive light. Instead, it comments on the privileges afforded to a young straight white man with a big smile, above-average smarts, and a sickening amount of hubris. This vehicle gets you from point A to point B whilst clunking along the way.
I’d venture to guess that most American adults know the name Ted Bundy. Extremely Wicked opens with the law student Ted (Zac Efron) in 1969 Seattle, eventually playing house with Liz (Lily Collins) and her daughter Molly. Things seem idyllic for the young single Mother, and Ted fills the Father role with the spirit of Tom Bosley’s patriarchal guidance from Happy Days, as well as the friendliness of John Ritter’s role in Three’s Company. Despite that though, what we know (or come to learn) about Ted Bundy makes the above image one of the most unnerving moments of the film. He’s cutting a two-year-old’s birthday cake, yet it’s within reason to assume he might be imagining – or perhaps reliving – other ways a chef’s knife can be put to use. We see that he wears a party hat and realize that he’s also wearing a mask.
Ted’s convicted of kidnapping, gets tied to multiple horrific murder cases, all while making a mockery of the courtroom proceedings. His old flame Carol Anne Boone (Kaya Scodelario) uproots her life and follows Ted to death row, serving as the embodiment of a mass culture obsessed with a bonafide serial killer. Then through a rather limiting and vestigial character device, Liz turns into a day-drinking, 9 to 5 lush during his absence, and while a strong supporting cast elevates the many court scenes, they’re also undone by horribly hasty editing. One might even call the cuts shockingly evil as the camera often flips back and forth each and every second. The film didn’t need to be so kinetic, and in fact it works best when it’s calm and forces us to sit beside the devil in the room without an intermission or a pause or a personal space bubble.
There’s nothing outstanding about Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked from a technical standpoint, which seems to be because he’s an experienced and skilled documentarian attempting a big narrative biopic. It’s adequate and tonally clashing. There are good parts though, as the film uses the lyrics of its music to emphasize the emotions of pivotal scenes (thanks to The Box Tops’ “The Letter” and Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Lucky Man“) and it helps to interpret this startling period in American history, admirably foregoing gory murders as a means of presenting the squeaky clean, surreptitious, and wholly manipulative methods Ted Bundy propagated in order to further ingratiate himself with the public during America’s first ever nationally televised trial.
The real reason to see Extremely Wicked is for the performance from Efron. He’s scary, charming and off-putting. Pleasantly polite yet cold-blooded and sinister. Efron shows us a new dramatic side by nailing this role, and had he committed to Ted Bundy’s unique and snakey vocal mannerisms, he might have even earned some awards chatter. Either way, Extremely Wicked is not without its faults, but the story does enrich this terrifying time period without idolizing the soulless ringmaster orchestrating the atrocities, and it serves up a platter full of commentary on the disgusting things smug white men are able to get away with when they have a sharp jawline, a moderately above average intellect, and a self-righteous preacher’s holier-than-thou attitude. Ultimately, Extremely Wicked gives us a surprisingly serious and calibrated performance from Efron acting off of a decent script that’s mistakenly more fueled by historical detail than it is by human depth.
“I’m not a bad guy.”
Rating: 2.5 out of 5