By Andrea Thompson
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” begins with the Goethe quote. “Few people have the imagination for reality.” In other words? Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Granted, “Extremely Wicked” may play on our common fascination with violence, especially when it’s committed by a charming, attractive (male) sociopath. But the film mostly avoids becoming another clichéd horror story by a less than common perspective.
Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) is a single mother in the 70s who meets a tall, dark, handsome stranger in a bar. They have the kind of instant connection that in other hands could be a meet-cute. He charms her, isn’t put off by the fact that she has a daughter, and they fall asleep in each other’s arms at the end of the night. When she wakes, she finds him making breakfast and making her daughter laugh. The undercurrent of menace comes from the fact that we know he’s Ted Bundy (Zac Efron), one of America’s most notorious, brutal serial killers. Also the fact that their beginning is intercut with scenes from their end, with Liz visiting Bundy before he’s to be executed.
The goal with “Extremely Wicked” also isn’t to show or glorify the murders, or even to explain why Bundy committed them, with not a flashback to his childhood to be found. Instead, the movie shows how he was able to get away with them for so long. It’s much easier with a lead like Efron; it isn’t just his incredible performance and charisma that makes his take on Bundy so compelling. It’s his image and status as one of the most popular actors working today. “Extremely Wicked” dares audiences to resist his charms, even if it constantly reminds us not only what Bundy was, but what he was capable of. We recognize him as human even as Liz notices small moments that reveal his inhumanity. He remained unrepentant until the last minute, probably only revealing at least some of the extent of his crimes in the hopes of prolonging his life. Bundy expertly manipulated the media, nearly everyone around him, and escaped authorities multiple times. Yet he also needed to believe his own lies, daring others as well as himself to imagine that this smiling, seemingly easygoing man could do such things.
The issues the movie has stem from the fact that this is a story based on a memoir by Liz herself, and “Extremely Wicked” is written and directed by men. As such, there’s little exploration of the more complex gender dynamics that led to many young women attending his trial. We understand why they’re drawn to Bundy, why Liz herself was in denial for so many years, and why she continued to be fascinated by him long after she finally ended their relationship, even if it would be about another decade before she could finally face the truth about the man she once loved. The presence of Liz’s daughter is also haphazard in the film’s middle when Liz is using alcohol as a coping method, as if the film can’t bear to make her unsympathetic in a film that’s all about the dark appeal of a violently sadistic man.
However, the film is very good at its true goal, and that is what Ted Bundy represents, to both Liz and the rest of us. He not only refused to confess, he apparently refused to see himself for what he was up until the end. According to the movie, his feelings for Liz were very real, and it is her pleas for him to finally confess at least part of the truth that prompts the film to finally show a sliver of Bundy’s deeds. It wisely leaves the rest up to us to try to fathom, even as it is aware that is ultimately unfathomable.