Add to the long-winded title of this film, “…and completely unnecessary.”
After debuting the four episode docu-series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes earlier this year, Netflix must have determined there was still some gold in them thar body-strewn hills. They have decided that what the world needs now is another couple of hours with this serially uninteresting narcissistic psychopath, despite their new scripted narrative version adding nothing new to our understanding of Bundy or what led the one-time law student and Republican oppo-researcher to murder approximately 37 women across seven states in the mid to late ’70s.
As a result, Joe Berlinger, who directed Extremely Wicked as well as the docu-series, has the uncomfortable task of essentially recording lesser cover versions of songs he himself already recorded; the results are just as uninspired as that sounds.
For his return to Bundyland—as the killer himself once noted, he was more popular in his time than Disneyland—Berlinger has enlisted former teen heartthrob Zac Efron to play the serial murderer. To further juice up interest in this often-told story, he tosses in a host of talented character actors (Jeffrey Donovan, Dylan Baker and Terry Kinney) as various polyester-enrobed lawyers and cops, as well as a jukebox full of period pop tunes to help set the scene. (Bundy commits the first of his two brazen escapes backed by The Box Tops’ “The Letter.”)
The hook of this telling is that we see the story through the lens of Bundy’s relationship with Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), the single mother who met him at a Seattle bar in 1969 and who stuck with him, on and off, through his various arrests and incarcerations. There is something inherently dishonest about framing the story around the supposed bond they shared. By his own admittance, Bundy was psychologically unable to form meaningful relationships. Everyone is in on the con but Liz.
Berlinger’s new film faithfully reproduces the seedy college apartments and beige courthouses of the ’70s, but does so without much flair or feeling. This is especially true when you compare it to the 2007 film Zodiac and the 2017 series Mindhunter (both directed by David Fincher), which covered the same territory with much more purpose and vitality and are both readily available on Netflix. (If Reed Hastings’ streaming service were a city, you wouldn’t want to live there: serial killers would inhabit an entire neighborhood.)
EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL, AND VILE ★
Efron is more than game for crawling into Bundy’s skin, a grim task previously undertaken by hunks Mark Harmon (the 1986 NBC two-parter The Deliberate Stranger), Billy Campbell (USA Network’s The Stranger Beside Me, 2003) and even Corky Nemic from Parker Lewis Can’t Lose (2008’s Bundy: An American Icon, a horror film.) And while the former Wildcat captures Bundy’s furtive manner and inch-deep charm, his performance is entirely too static for a career criminal who not only ages twenty years over the course of the story but also was known to change his appearance as often as most of us brush our teeth.
The film’s lone moment of power and terror comes at the very end, when the habitual liar finally comes clean to Liz. (Bundy did not admit his crimes until just before he was put to death by electric chair and then only as a means to bargain for a stay of execution.) It’s also one of the only informational pieces not already in the documentary—and Efron underplays it with chilling authority. But still you’re left to wonder, what’s the point of all this effort?
There is nothing to illuminate here: Bundy had no inner life. He possessed no secrets, only lies. He is worse than a cipher—he is a brand, one that Netflix algorithms value in a way that it doesn’t, say, the sitcom One Day at a Time, which it canceled following its third season.
To quote that show’s theme song: “This is life, the one you get.” Do we really need to be spending it with Ted Bundy?