Joe Berlinger’s “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” is a bit confusing in its early stage, but gets significantly better over time. When its final sequences arrive, the film reverberates with a dreadful impact long after the credits roll.
A single mother Liz (Lily Collins) meets a handsome guy in a bar. This guy’s name is Ted Bundy (Zac Efron) and he’s the best thing that ever happened to her. The idyllic life falls apart when Ted is taken into custody, accused of committing multiple murders. From now on, Ted’s trial becomes both a drama on a national scale and a personal trauma of Liz.
In the aftermath of the terrifying discoveries that linked Ted Bundy to dozens of grim crimes across several states, there was one woman who felt shattered by the news more than anybody else. This woman’s story, with all the harrowing images she pictured in mind when the accusations were flying over Ted’s head, constituted a material for an unspeakably heart-rending and compelling film.
Despite the gripping material, it’s a tough stunt to pull off – to steer away from a name like Ted Bundy in order to focus on someone much more ordinary. In the end, it’s Bundy who had all of America’s eyes on him, manipulating the jury, making women feel weirdly fascinated by him and leaving so many people baffled, and with a nagging question in mind – did he really do all of it? In such a razzmatazz, the story of a woman who entrusted this monster suddenly loses its beaming power (however wrong that sounds).
Frankly, the director of “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” didn’t escape the trap that he clearly wanted to avoid in the first act of the movie.
It’s only fair to say that the beginning of “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” is one, big mess. Joe Berlinger, a director with a dossier full of documentary features, is troubled an unbalanced approach to the leading character’s development. An attempt to ensure Lily Collins with enough space doesn’t work because Liz’s sketch is rough on the edges, and the actress suffocates in the extreme pace of the plot. With such a delicate role, there isn’t enough time to let the tiny nuances build credibility.
What’s more baffling is the decision to start with a scene that shows Liz’s last visit in Bundy’s prison. That opening sequence signals the dark cloud hanging over Bundy’s head too soon, and as the story unravels, none of the sweet-scenes, passionate love-making, or Christmas get-togethers can change the disturbing omen that everything’s about to go terribly wrong. This constant unease isn’t the tension it’s supposed to be, but instead, it questions the state of being emotionally engaged in that love story. If you already know the end, why even bother?
That’s precisely where Belinger’s “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” falters the most in its first half. It’s the negligence toward focusing on Lily Collins’ character and granting the actress time to build a character on her own. Sadly so, because she’s perfectly cast, staring with her moony-eyed look, but also capturing the moment when her life essence slowly fades away as Ted’s trial becomes unbearably painful to watch. Collins clearly had an appetite for more.
The spotlight is casted elsewhere. Zac Efron, the enfant prodige of Disney, turns wickedly dark and twisted. It’s mature and full of understanding, because Efron is nowhere near glorifying Bundy. All of the charm that the former Disney darling possess lets him become a cinematic reconstruction of Ted Bundy, but not a single moment is goes overboard with it. His take on Bundy is a handsome, cocky and feisty individual, however, Efron realises that Bundy is a devil in human skin, and hides the hissing snake in details. Even in his most charismatic moments, Efron keeps the evil awake.
The unstable first half gets wildly overshadowed by the gripping depiction of Ted Bundy’s trial.
Berlinger’s in his elements the moment he moves the story to the stuffy courtroom, with cameras, Bundy’s cheerleading supporters and millions of America’s eyes that follow his trial. By augmenting the facts with this full-bodied dramatization, and keeping the documentary-like aesthetic, Berlinger lets each actor build in the grandeur of this spectacle.
There is not a single false note in any acting chop in that second half of “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”. The supporting performances fit Berlinger’s picture almost flawlessly. At times, it’s John Malkovich as Judge Edward Cowart who mesmerises, only to pass the baton to Jim Parsons (the Florida State prosecutor) or any other actor to step in. It’s a piece of wildly entertaining cinema.
And with the final scene, when a long-take zoom clenches around Efron’s frozen grimace as the judge’s final speech hits with its gut-wrenching authenticity, the rough beginnings will be long gone in your memory.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” might not be the best film you’ll see this year, but will hold the position among 2019 highlights for more than one (Zac Efron can act?!) reason.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)
Dir.: Joe Berlinger
Hate Grade: 3/10