The tale of Theodore Robert Bundy aka Ted Bundy is that of legend. This is a classic story of a living, breathing monster, a husk of man who was a predator that had a complete disregard for human life. Lately Netflix has capitalized on the more salacious details of his life. First with the documentary series “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” and now the narrative feature “Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile,” starring Zac Efron as Bundy, which hit the streaming giant on May 3. Both projects, directed by filmmaker Joe Berlinger, take different approaches toward cracking the mystery behind the famed killer’s psychology. While the documentary takes us on a cradle to grave journey through his life and murders, the narrative hones in on the period in Bundy’s life where he feigned a domesticated lifestyle complete with a two-car garage and a child.
“Extremely Wicked” has caught online backlash for the portrayal of Bundy by Efron, who’s objectively a sexy human being. This is problematic in theory as we don’t want to romanticize his action with a worldwide sex symbol. However, Berlinger takes a subversive approach to how he portrays Bundy in the film. We see the killer through the eyes of his girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Colins), a single mother, who is the perfect mark for Bundy to manipulate. The year is 1969, she’s at a weak point in her life and gender politics at that time dictated that a woman needs a man in the house, and what better person than a charismatic law student. The purpose of the film is to not get the audience to thirst after Bundy, but to understand what brainwashing in a relationship truly looks like at its worst.
We’re taken on a path of denial by both Liz and Ted: the former, who doubted that the man who took care of her child was capable of bludgeoning a sorority girl over the head with a tree branch, and the latter, who so desperately wants to be seen as a powerful intellectual you’d love to strike up a conversation with at a dinner party. This level of codependency is chilling as Berlinger plays with audience expectations, with the more sensationalized elements where Bundy is portrayed as a freewheeling maverick. We all know he committed these crimes, but the inverted look into the levels of exploitation at play as he vehemently denies any wrong doing highlights the corrosive behavior that is taking place. Even though Bundy is front and center, the film has Colins diving deep into Kloepfer’s psychology, a path that leads her down a road towards crippling self doubt and eventually leads her to lose her humanity in the process.
Casting Efron could have been a problematic choice if the filmmakers did not have Kloepfer’s voice prominently featured. While “Extremely Wicked” is on the more major side of relational abuse, it portrays her journey with reverence and compassion. These stories are difficult to watch, but this is still timely in 2019. The actor, who has stretched his range and has developed into something more than a set of dancing abs, finds moments where he disappears. He embraces the overall sliminess of Bundy’s blowhard personality, while Berlinger calls for the audience’s mind to do a lot of the grunt work as we’re piecing together the elements of what really is going on behind his eyes.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” preys upon our true crime obsessions and the fascinations we have with Bundy. He’s a sick individual who used his murderous rampage to mask with his inherent white male privilege, and that is something that is unfortunately ingrained into the fabric of American culture. We are left with images of his crimes, how he decapitated a woman with a hacksaw, how he removed undergarments with such force that it left burn marks on the thighs of his victim. No amount of sex appeal from Zac Efron can paint this man in a favorable light.