Our culture is interested in real and out-of-this-world stories. This is why a good portion of the films released each year are ‘based on a true story’. These films are usually dramatized versions of real events that have happened to real people. People just like us. As a society, we like watching stories about people like us. For some reason, knowing that these events actually happened interests us; they usually serve as inspiration or as a cautionary tale.
The latest film to bring a true story to the big screen is Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile as it tackles the infamous serial killer, Ted Bundy. But director Joe Berlinger takes an interesting approach into Bundy’s world that attempts to give the true crime genre a new awakening.
What makes the film stand out is the choice of perspective. Any director can make a Ted Bundy film by following him on his journey as he murders at least 30 young women from 1974 through 1978. We would watch Bundy in all his horrible, sickly glory as he seduces young women only to meet their gory demise in the next few hours. It’s voyeurism at its finest and is definitely the easiest way to go when making a true crime story – but Berlinger doesn’t take that route. In fact, he decides to not allow Bundy to guide the audience on his story at all.
Instead, the first half of the film is told from the perspective of his girlfriend Elizabeth (Lily Collins). Through this lens, we see the side of Bundy (Zac Efron) that all of his victims and the world saw. Ted is charming, handsome, sweet, knows exactly what to say and how to say it. He’s the man that every woman wants to get attention from, which makes it impossible for them to say no to him. We follow Ted and Liz from when they first meet through the next five years, where they live together and co-parent Liz’s daughter, Molly. It is also when Ted begins his killing career, all of it however, is done off camera. It is only when Liz sees a sketch on a wanted poster that resembles Ted when the murders start to enter the story in a dark way.
By having the film from Liz’s perspective, the audience never sees the horrific side of him that we have been taught. Instead, the audience learns about the murders just as Liz does: via a reporter on the news. We never see any of the murders or gruesome scenes that one would expect in a ‘Ted Bundy movie’ because Liz wasn’t there and Liz doesn’t know that side of Ted. To Liz, that Ted doesn’t exist so it doesn’t exist to the audience. According to Liz, Ted is a sweet family man that wants to graduate from law school so he can marry her and start their life together. He’s romantic, fun, and makes Liz feel like the center of the universe. To Liz, Ted’s a good guy. Maybe even the best guy in the world.
This results in the audience thinking the same thing and sometimes even rooting for Ted’s innocence. During the first trials in the film, Ted sticks to his plea of not guilty and encourages everyone around him that he was falsely accused. He re-assures Liz that he’s innocent and she believes him. She never sees Ted do anything violent or out of character to raise a red flag. He’s composed, put together, and somehow manages to get a 2019 audience to root for him.
All of this is in result to the brilliance of Zac Efron in his strongest role to date. With this choice of direction, Efron had an even bigger challenge than any other actor in any other Ted Bundy movie. Efron had to not only charm the audience, but also foul the audience. He somehow had to get the audience on his side, despite the fact that everyone watching knew of Bundy’s guilt. But with every smile and glance, he did it. He somehow managed to make his audience feel as if they were watching a man falsely accused of the worst crimes in the American judicial system. It isn’t until the end of the film that the audience and Liz realize how sick Bundy is as his eyes that were once so inviting become ice cold. It’s a sense of shock and a sense of betrayal. But it also shows how good Bundy was at manipulating his audience as well as how good Efron is as an actor.
As soon as Liz starts to doubt Ted’s innocence, everything starts to become clear. He escapes prison, moves to Florida (which has the death penalty), and suddenly two girls have been killed. As Liz starts to leave the narrative, the point of view switches to the court’s as Bundy once again tries to manipulate his target. Ted manages to gain attention from the entire world and a majority of young women during his televised trial but still fails to get his way.
Even in death, Ted Bundy is silenced as Berlinger refuses to allow him to tell his own story. The result is that we never get to see the true monster that Ted Bundy was, just the facade of a hidden monster lurking in his prey. Instead of watching a monster in the shadows, we see that the nicest, most charming person you meet could be capable of the most violent actions. It honors the victims and treats them with respect, but it might not be the most entertaining ‘true crime’ movie because of that. But for the victims’ cases, it might be for the best.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is currently available to stream Netflix