Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile review – Zac Efron in serial killer mode

Efron’s casting in the real-life story of Ted Bundy, executed for the murder of 30 women, is startling but the film shies away from awkward questions

There’s a swarthy, seedy, self-pitying, self-aggrandising and undoubtedly plausible performance here from executive producer/star Zac Efron, playing the notorious US serial killer Ted Bundy, who in 1989 was executed for 30 murders and is still suspected of many more. The director is Joe Berlinger, who has already made the non-fiction Netflix series Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.

Efron is clever casting, the most startling since Tony Curtis became The Boston Strangler in the 1968 film. He is a queasily parodic hottie. But I found something questionable and obtuse in the fundamental procedure of this movie. It doesn’t glorify or glamorise Bundy in any obvious way, but it persists in taking him at his own estimation of himself.

The action depicts the official surface of Bundy’s life, the eager-beaver law student, dating single-mom Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) on whose memoir of the relationship the movie is based. (“Liz Kendall” is a pen name; her real name is Elizabeth Kloepfer.) Their life together is complicated when Bundy is arrested for attempted kidnap, which escalates to much more serious charges, and we see the drawn-out murder trial, made more sensational by being televised, and by Bundy’s own grotesque vanity. But it’s not until the very end – and then only glancingly – that the film acknowledges on camera the psychotically murderous and misogynistic activity that Bundy really has been carrying out over so many long years, the activity that must have dominated so much of his energy and private thoughts.

Why the reticence? Is it to show Bundy’s warped image of himself? As a decent, talented man for whom these things were a deniable irrelevance? Or to represent Liz’s state as the innocent dupe? Maybe. But I suspect Berlinger and screenwriter Michael Werwie are unsure whether to show Liz as pristine or as Bundy’s useful idiot. The film withholds until the very end a certain revelation that clouds the question of what she knew. And then, after the final credits – which unspool alongside the traditional pedantic revelation of real-life TV news footage underlining the film’s verité credentials – we get as a solemn afterthought a list of the 30 known victims. That feels very sheepish and a bit lame. The film hasn’t done justice to the sheer volume of horror.

Indirect and mysterious depictions of mass murderers can work. Marc Meyers’s film My Friend Dahmer (2017) was interesting, because it limited itself to the pre-murder years. But there is something basically unsatisfactory about this glassy-eyed biopic of the satanic dreamboat Bundy.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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