Former Street editor–in–chief Nick Joyner went to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Now Nick’s back to fill us in about all the hottest indies coming out this year.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, a dramatic look at the unfolding of serial killer Ted Bundy's mass murders, is undoubtedly the hottest ticket to emerge from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. And it's also the latest film to ignite the Internet. Joe Berlinger’s new release arrived alongside his Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which explores the backstory of the infamous murderer from a biographical perspective, and had mostly quiet rollout.
Extremely Wicked was a different story. When the film hit Sundance and its trailer flooded the Internet, Twitter users flocked to criticize the film for romanticizing and sexualizing a brutal serial killer, their takedowns accruing thousands of retweets and likes. As The Washington Post reported, Berlinger himself responded to the outrage and was quoted by the Salt Lake Tribune saying, “There’s a fine line we’re drawing between people’s perceptions that we’re glorifying [him] versus having a real reason to be telling this story again in this way." In other words, he saw their points and respectfully disagreed with those who had not yet seen the film.
In a surprising moment, Kathy Kleiner, one of the only surviving victims of Ted Bundy, uploaded a video stating a similar opinion of the film: "I believe that in order to show him exactly the way he was, it's not really glorifying him, but it's showing him, and when they do say positive and wonderful things about him ... That's what they saw, that's what Bundy wanted you to see."
Both Berlinger and Kleiner made valid points about the necessity of casting a character who would do justice to Bundy's alleged "handsomeness" and invoke the serial killer's real–life personality and danger. But the casting of Zac Efron seems excessive given his entrenched status as an American heartthrob, and only serves as a distraction from the film's attempts at a realistic performance.
In actuality, the controversy is a non–controversy. Extremely Wicked contains none of the bombast, sexiness, or intrigue that the trailer purports. It's entirely understandable how audiences might latch onto this sensationalistic, sexualized air of the trailer, which paints Bundy as a seductive mastermind and his partner Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins) as gullible arm candy. And paired with Fandango's inexplicable tweet of the trailer with a winky face in the caption, this anger is justified on many fronts. But still, it's a movie you have to see in its entirety before plowing into, because the two–minute official clip is far from representative of its content and approaches.
The trailer of Extremely Wicked is nothing but a bait and switch. The promised beguiling thriller neither thrills nor beguiles. It is an airless, chronologically confused movie that will skate by on promotional shock value that it can't even earn. It sells itself as a Zodiac, but it has none of its violent intrigue or careful investigative touches. And I have no doubt that the Twitterverse outrage will abate once audiences can see it with their own eyes.
Though billed as an action–packed period piece, Extremely Wicked is a remarkably bloodless film. It is the story of Ted Bundy the serial killer told through the eyes of his longtime partner Liz, who got acquainted with Bundy before most of his killings began, and who was in periodic contact with him over the ensuing years. This movie is not about an obtuse housewife who got duped by a murderer, but rather a movie about one of Bundy's ultimate victims—the woman whom he terrorized in both absence and presence, whose sense of security and love he forever destroyed.
In many ways, Liz was Ted's first and last victim, so it makes sense that the film would start and end with her staring through prison glass with Ted on the other side. He was confined physically for his actions, and she was stunted emotionally and mentally from having to process it all. It is through Liz's eyes that we start the film in 1969, where the two meet for the first time. At their jukebox rendezvous, Bundy does not at all appear charismatic, only distant and awkward.
Perhaps Efron could never quite conjure the creepiness or famed allure of Bundy, or perhaps Bundy was intentionally characterized in this ambiguous manner. Regardless, from the time we first meet Efron's Bundy, there is never any sense of identification with his character or feeling of rooting for him. He's a weird guy, the type you would probably sidestep if he came up to you with a handful of quarters in a half empty bar.
Perhaps that is a signature flaw of the film, that Bundy never comes across as charming. If he did, detractors might have more ground to stand on, but he has a graceless aloofness that neither allows us to hate him nor understand how he was able to enthrall his victims. The viewer is always looking at Liz, identified with her. In many senses, this movie is about her twenty years of self–scrutiny. As the film jumps between Utah, Washington, and Florida and in and out of the courtrooms and jails that Bundy has evaded, the fixation is decidedly on Liz and how the consequences of his actions will bear on her. At no point in the film is a question raised about Bundy's innocence. From the start of his crimes (none of which are depicted onscreen or even alluded to in the early stages of the film), there is no doubt that he is a guilty man. And he is always depicted as such.
Extremely Wicked is not about murder or justice. It's about normalcy and denial. It asks these questions: At what point would you turn on your own lover? When does your love become irrational? Where can you place your trust? And how will your inner sense of safety ever be the same again?
In the early stages of the film, Liz doesn't want to believe the crimes Ted is guilty of. But there is a point at which she severs ties with Ted, stops answering phone calls, and sits down to let the lies and trickery consume her. She is never complicit, though she does take a little while to accept the bald facts in front of her.
Deconstruction and summary aside, is this a good film? Far from it. It's grossly overacted, the chronology is jagged and uneven, and the unfolding of action is far from consistent. It does nothing to deserve its 110–minute runtime, and is wholly visually uninteresting. At the end of the film's premiere, I found myself shouting along with Liz's final lines to the incarcerated Ted Bundy: "Release me!" I too needed to be let out of the theater, clinging to some hope that the director's Netflix docuseries would do more to hold my attention.