Netflix recently released an original film featuring stars such as Zac Efron, Lily Collins, John Malkovich, Haley Joel Osment and Jim Parsons. The title of Joe Berlinger's "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile" comes from the famous post-sentencing remarks of Judge Edward Cowart to Ted Bundy, America's most notorious serial killer. Cowart called the killings "extremely wicked, shockingly evil, vile and the product of a design to inflict a high degree of pain and utter indifference to human life."
One of the most interesting aspects of this movie comes from how strongly it resists showing Bundy as "wicked" or "evil." Bundy is never shown committing a crime. The viewer is left instead with a terrifying void — the void of Bundy himself — a blank space where a human being should be. The viewer is shown the life of Elizabeth Kloepfer, played by Collins, and her relationship with Bundy from the time they were dating until his death. This point of view is loosely based on “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy,” the memoir of Bundy's long-time girlfriend.
"Extremely Wicked" mixes Kloepfer's point of view with Bundy's, but there are some crucial differences in approach. Berlinger puts viewers inside Kloepfer's growing terror as she realizes that she has been living with the guy who possibly did the horrible things she's seeing on the news. Their happy relationship — shown in home movie footage — is intercut with local news reports of girls going missing in the area, others showing up dead and two brazen abductions in broad daylight.
Berlinger follows Bundy, too, but in those sequences, we only see his outer behavior, what he does. This captures his opaque quality, the sense one gets from camouflage, hiding his true nature. Bundy insists, with increasing aggravation, that he’s been wrongly accused.
A lesser quality film would’ve intercut the happy home scenes with scenes of Bundy killing female college students, just to remind viewers that Bundy's evil. A lesser quality film would’ve provided flashbacks to his childhood in an attempt to explain why he acts in the way he does. Instead, the audience is hidden from his secret life, just like Kloepfer is unaware of it. The viewer sees him as she sees him, and he’s a dazzlingly disorienting figure. This is what Efron taps into; this is what Efron understands.
Efron doesn't telegraph to the audience Bundy's sinister motives; he doesn’t distance himself from Bundy's charming maneuvers. His smokescreen is impenetrable. There are moments when Efron looks so much like Bundy, especially with the beard. It’s truly eerie. But it's more than just an outer transformation. Occasionally, there’s a brief glimpse on his face of what Bundy's victims might’ve seen in their final moments. Efron is in charge of when and how the viewers get to see it.
If someone wants to understand why Ted Bundy got away with what he did for as long as he did, watch Efron flirt with Collins in the scene where the characters first meet. Look for signs of Bundy's malevolence. Squint for evidence of his evil. You won't find it. Neither did Kloepfer. That’s why it’s terrifying.
Contact Devin Townsend at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.