With the public’s appetite for true crime reaching seemingly insatiable levels, Netflix has gone all-in on serial killer Ted Bundy, releasing the four-part documentary Conversations With a Serial Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and Bundy biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile within months of each other. Both are directed by Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost), who — when watching these two films in close proximity with each other — is clearly a much better documentarian than he is a narrative filmmaker. Berlinger’s previous foray into fiction, 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, is actually something of a misunderstood and under-appreciated work of experimental meta-horror, but Extremely Wicked has no such maverick instincts nor bold ideas. Even this film’s lurid title (a direct quote from the Bundy trial’s presiding judge, Edward Cowart) never really delivers on its promise, because the film is focused on portraying Bundy (Zac Efron) as a charming family man in sharp contrast with the title’s description of a man history has come to know as one of America’s most infamous serial murderers. And that’s part of the point, of course: Berlinger is attempting to show that monsters exist everywhere, even where they’re least suspected to be. But the Bundy we see is a man on the defense, who believes himself to be the victim of a corrupt system pursuing an incredible miscarriage of justice. We never see him commit a murder. We never see him trying to cover it up. All we see is the amiable, erudite Bundy that so beguiled the media and everyone around him.
There’s something deeply disturbing about the way that Extremely Wicked divorces a real-life monster from the crimes he committed.
It could be argued that Extremely Wicked‘s goal is to portray Bundy from the perspective of his girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins). But the film treats Kloepfer herself as little more than a long-suffering parter, giving her no agency in this story. Another, more obvious downside is that, in employing this strategy, Bundy’s victims are completely erased. Commend Berlinger for refusing to sensationalize suffering, but by framing Extremely Wicked as something of a whodunit, with the question of Bundy’s guilt used to create dramatic tension, it’s doing a great disservice to those that were murdered by him. America is, of course, fascinated by serial killers, and the alluring, urbane mystique that’s common in many fictional characters that have been immortalized (Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, and Patrick Bateman), but there’s something deeply disturbing about the way that Extremely Wicked divorces a real-life monster from the crimes he committed. The film doesn’t seem interested in what one would assume should be the central question here: Why did this man become a killer? Instead, Berlinger attempts to get at an understanding of how Ted Bundy was able to fool so many into thinking he was a good, upstanding, even admirable man — and the result almost feels like an apologia, a way of humanizing and normalizing the unspeakable. It is absolutely important to understand that evil often comes wrapped in an appealing package (and Efron’s million-dollar smile and bare ass certainly make for an attractive package), but there’s something decidedly icky about the way that Extremely Wicked downplays Bundy’s murders. Bundy was a master manipulator, and rather than unpack that, Berlinger seems determined to spend two hours letting him manipulate from beyond the grave.
You can currently stream Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile on Netflix.