“Extremely wicked” falls extremely flat

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (Berlinger, 2019) arrived in select theaters and on Netflix this past Friday. Read the critique of the trailer-the preview review-along with some unexpected serial killer statistics. For those uncomfortable with this subject matter, why read this? The whole thing is a trigger warning. There’s the disclaimer, you’ve been forewarned. Enjoy. After watching the film and then rewatching the trailer, in my honest opinion, the trailer itself was as good as the movie. The trailer captures the bizarre mixture of romance coinciding with murder along with the sensationalism that surrounded the serial killer and his Florida trial. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution by electrocution and the buzz around the release of the feature film reached high voltage. Did it live up to the screeching energy? Yes and no. Scoring a 58% on Rotten Tomatoes and an R rating for disturbing/violent content, some sexuality, nudity, and language. The film, directed by Joe Berlinger is the most recent in contributions to Bundy. First released by Netflix was Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, a four-part Netflix docuseries also directed by Berlinger. Audio recording belonging to journalist Stephen Michaud, who interviewed Bundy while on death row for his book, Only Living Witness: The True Story of Serial Sex Killer Ted Bundy is released across the four-episode series wherein the narcissistic murderer narrates his own actions in grotesque detail. The highly anticipated film with the clumsy title, followed the docuseries, telling the story of Ted through a different lens. Through the view of his alleged one, true love. The creative perspective was introduced in the screenplay written by Michael Werewie, which is based on the book written by Liz herself; The Phantom Prince: my life with Ted Bundy. It is a clever approach but the the movie overall is as flat as the two sides of the coin that tell the tale of Ted. It is different but different doesn’t automatically mean good. It’s not a bother but a preference that the murderer was not glorified, why praise another deplorable? The bother is in that the newly scripted story had no flow. The hour and forty-nine minutes of footage came across as a grab bag of emotions that lacked cohesion. What the latest Bundy installment did have going for it was a phenomenal cast, some of which include; Zac Efron, Lily Collins, John Malkovich, and Angela Sarafyan. Unfortunately, the terrific cinematography of Brandon Trost and knowledge of true crime directing was not enough to keep “Extremely Wicked” extremely interesting. Spoilers ahead.

It opens with a pungent melodramatic aroma that reaches the suffocating degree of Twilight. The pacing is discombobulating in the beginning. Hang in there for the first twenty minutes. An abrupt upswing occurs when Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) changes the tune, literally, by putting something by Joe Tex on the record player. Even with a livelier mood, it was difficult not to fast-forward through the lovebird montages designed for Hallmark. This is a movie about murder right? Women slaughtered? How many picture perfect moments can there be? It’s a difficult thing for writers and directors to intertwine an honest romance into a truthful horror, difficult but not impossible, and if such a task is attempted it should be executed as efficiently as Bundy was in 1989. Unfortunately, speaking as an opinionated viewer, this was not achieved extremely well. Perhaps it would’ve been more engaging to show Liz and only Liz, the film is based on her narrative after all, why not show the entirety of it? A question worth asking because although this film was created with the opposite intention of focusing on the villain, the screen seldom lights up when Efron is not on it. If anything, the lack of knowing what Ted is up to makes the viewers want to see him all the more. Thus, Berlinger ran into the very problem he was trying to avoid, by not explaining Bundy in detail, the mystery is what stokes the fire of intrigue. The unsteady pacing tosses viewers into the would-be mindset of Bundy’s swooning fans. The ‘groupie’ aspect is heavily exaggerated throughout the entire movie. Bundy was conventionally good-looking if that. He was by no means snapping necks the way Zac Efron does. Had not each and every woman been unable to take their eyes off of him, the inflation of attractiveness would’ve been more believable or at least less distracting. The overstating of physical appeal further rattles the tone that the film ultimately fails to settle into. Is it a romance? Is it a thriller? Really it’s a horror but things come across much too light and airy to be considered horrible. Even when the masochist sadist is not present, the vibe is that of a drama with misplaced comedy.

Given the confusion as to what emotion to land on as the film leaps through time, the only consistent impression, ironically, is what is provided by Zac Efron’s character and he is not around much. The killer’s absence creates a longing to see him in action, any kind of action, if for no other reason than to escape the one-dimensional perspective of Liz. It begins in Seattle in 1969 when Liz met Ted and she is effortlessly seduced. Much of the dialogue between characters is weak, including the opening scene, in that it states the obvious rather than using tact to show what’s being said that isn’t necessarily spoken. Ted so easily seduces Liz that she barely has any reservation introducing him to her daughter right after meeting him. If anything, her concern is whether or not Ted will want to run after finding out she is a single mother. He doesn’t run. Her vulnerability is obvious to him. He stays the night. They don’t have sex. In the morning, her stomach drops because her baby isn’t in the crib, she’s in the kitchen with Ted, eating cheerios while he cooks in a yellow apron. She’s relieved. He smiles and pours her coffee. She stands there in a haze, wondering, is this man too good to be true?

Time accelerates to a few years later in 1974 when the killings began. We don’t know much about what Ted is up to. TRIGGER WARNING: Bundy raping women, dismembering them and having sex with their corpses are not shown in the film-thankfully. There is a slap, a punch and a whack with a tire iron but the aggression stops there. We only know what Liz knows until the very end. She is mostly a sad, confused alcoholic. When her friend Joanna (played by Angela Sarafyan) inquires about her descent into depression Liz tells Jo, ”when I feel his love I feel like I’m on top of the world and when I don’t I feel like I’m nothing.” We find out that she was suspicious of Ted, and not only that but she is the one who reported him initially, something that is held back for suspense but after the reveal, it raises questions.

“If Liz suspected her live-in boyfriend that early on of a violent crime, why did she stay with him? What was that like? Extremely Wicked misses out on some of the most important beats of its supposed premise by skipping over this chapter entirely.”-Vulture

The events in the courtroom and the prison(s) were by far the most interesting scenes, largely because Efron brings the film to life. His performance was pristine. He seamlessly disappears in the superfluous presentation that is Ted Bundy. However, using such a pretty face caused for lack of believable insidiousness. It was a long wait to feel the fear of the depraved madman that existed just beneath an impressively chiseled surface, a wait that was not satisfied. There was a moment or two where his face hardened but it was not enough to be convinced that he was as demonic as he was dashing. Arguably, the only character who sensed his camouflaged evil was the dog in the pound. How much more proof of a bad seed does someone need other than a suspicious dog? Whatever Liz knew or thought she knew, a dog behaving strangely is more proof than necessary to run without explanation. Liz was obviously under his spell as she confesses to her friend Joanna, a fictitious amalgam of friendship created to represent a voice of reason. Did everybody unquestionably believe him? In reality, there was suspicion but the script shies away from gut instinct. The strongest appeal “Extremely Wicked” does provide was not the target that the director had in mind. NPR explained; “Extremely Wicked” is doing something clever nonetheless, maybe best exemplified by a scene of Bundy escaping the courthouse in broad daylight. It’s shot with a boisterous kind of thrill, like the famous scene of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train where we actually root for the evil psychopath to pull a cigarette lighter out of a storm drain. Perspective can be a slippery thing, and hindsight will not save us. Is that guy you see onscreen good or bad if all you see is him, and not the horrible things you know he has done?”

When I feel his love I feel like I’m on top of the world and when I don’t I feel like I’m nothing.-Liz

This psychopath may cause Liz to feel “on top of the world” but it is he who feels as if he stands on the peak of Everest saying, “I’m more popular than Disney World.” This is a direct line into the mind of a total narcissist, an angle that if explored more by the film would’ve allowed for greater captivation. What truly made that man believe he was innocent? Surely it had to be more than a paperback copy of Papillon. The plot of the novel is an obvious foreshadowing for Ted. Perhaps watching the 2017 with Rami Malek about escaped prisoner, Henri Charrière, nicknamed ‘butterfly’ would have been extremely entertaining.

I’m more popular than Disney World.-Ted Bundy

What is extremely interesting, is the isolated portrayal of the infamous serial killer. Specifically in the re-enacted 1977 interview where Bundy is covered in a sweater and a thick beard sitting across from Colorado jailhouse reporter, played by director Joe Berlinger. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile purposefully and intently focused on the emotions and conflicts of Ted’s fiancée, a concept that would have been more artful had we been given the privilege of going inside her mind, imitating the perspective of another murderous Netflix series, You, rather than watching her watch the trial with her post-Bundy boyfriend, Jerry, played by Haley Joel Osment. Shouldn’t the grown-up version of The Sixth Sense kid have been able to see dead people? The perspective of Liz was not very insightful. It’s clear she loved him and it’s clear she was sad without him but we did not need the wasted scenes of watching her watch the trial that we were already thrust into. The overarching idea was to be immersed in the American experience at that time. The result was a disorienting flip-flop between two distinct narratives. Making it feel like commercial interruptions between Bundy and his trial. Other than the prison scenes, the courtroom was the other arresting setting of the film. Exciting and honest. John Malkovich steals the screen as Judge Cowart. Every scene he is in plays out marvelously. The 1979 trial is where things feel like an extended episode of Law and Order SVU. Ted is well groomed and handsomely dressed, flanked with an audience of young girls as if he is a celebrity. Everyone in the courtroom plays it up for the camera since this trial was the first in history to be televised. It’s going to take more than working the light for Ted to be declared innocent. Judge Cowart slams his gavel and reminds the room this is not Spring Break but a capital murder case warning Bundy, “you are skating on thin ice and ice does not last long in Florida.” Ted responds respectively in his powder blue suit and bow tie, the lone ice cube that is slowly melting into a puddle. Prior to the courtroom, the Florida sheriff points out the precarious position Ted has gotten himself in. He enters the cell. Bundy, sitting on his bed asks if the man is his lawyer to which he responds,

“That’s funny, I thought you were one.” Bundy smiles but it’s not enough this time, however, Bundy always assumes he has the upper hand and goes into an explanation about the child’s drawing of a Thresher Shark taped to his wall, an obvious motif in this film, representing a predator. A predator with a tail as long as it’s body, signifying that the creature may put up twice the fight than what is expected. Ted was a predator and his victims were prey, he had a sharp bite but eventually, his teeth wouldn’t be as strong. According to the film, if not for his distinct bite the verdict may have come back innocent. His own weapon turned against him. Ted does not get to finish his explanation of the hunter, the threat he used to be before there was a chip in his own grin. Bundy stops talking when the Sheriff takes the picture off the prison wall and tears it thoughtfully to pieces, sending the shreds in a flurry that falls over Ted as he says, “Washington missed you, Utah gave you away, Colorado lost you. I’m going to fry you.”

Carole Ann Boone, played by Kaya Scodelario, is the woman who represented Bundy in the press and then became his wife. The two previously worked for a suicide hotline. Boone personifies those who are dazzled by Bundy but despite carrying his child, Ted doesn’t share the passion that Carole has for him, such passion he reserved for Liz. He does try to recreate the romance by proposing to Carole on the witness stand mid-trial, prompting Florida prosecutor Simpson played by Jim Parsons to announce, “are you shitting me?” Lovestruck Carole responds to musings of their future with a house and a dog saying,

“I’m allergic to dogs but that sounds nice.” Solidifying that the future Bundy thought he knew was slipping away, there would be no house and no dog and Carole Boone would never be Liz Kendall.

Liz does leave him in the physical but her heart remains in the hands of a man who choked the life out of dozens of women. He writes her letters from prison and calls repeatedly, despite her reciprocating less and less. One time, Jerry answers the call and once Ted confirms that it’s him Jerry says,

“You can’t call her anymore. You’re killing her.” A telling statement as to how many ways a person can die. As the guilty verdict is announced and things are coming to a close, Jerry says to Liz, “he’s killing you because you’re letting him.” A profound truth about what it means to let go. At this point in the film, she has yet to see the last of Ted and when she does look into his eyes for the final time, it is a haunting moment of resolution. That scene is done so well. If only more of the movie harnessed that energy. Revealing but not revolting, wonderful yet wicked, vile and validating. It should have ended there. Abruptly. Fade to black. If it had, if most likely would’ve been worth it but it doesn’t. Vulture Magazine concludes; ”the film ends with archival footage of the real Bundy that rolls over the credits, in a move that’s becoming a nearly ubiquitous crutch for films based on true stories. In the case of “Extremely Wicked,” that coda runs for more than a few minutes and contains many of the scenes we’ve just seen Berlinger and Efron reenact. What is the point of this — to prove that they did a good job, that they said the lines in the right cadence and that the outfits looked the same? If that’s the mark of a job well done, why not just make a documentary from that footage? Of course, Berlinger already has: Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes debuted on Netflix less than two days before Extremely Evil’s Sundance premiere. If the narrative film only exists to give us the unsettling sliminess of Efron as Bundy, it won’t be a total waste. But it’s not much of a movie, either.”

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