Award-winning documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger and late collaborator Bruce Sinofsky were always interested in making films about the way our justice or injustice, system worked; the perpetrators, the victims, the fascination was there seeped into every frame of “Brother’s Keeper” and “Paradise Lost.” However, in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile,” Berlinger decides to turn his camera towards the “charismatic killer” and the way evil can easily be shaded by charm.
Berlinger already has “The Ted Bundy Tapes” on Netflix and, given that the streaming giant also bought Extremely vile’ at Sundance for $13 million, a double-feature is damn-near impossible to resist between these two films.
Don’t listen to the mixed reviews “Extremely Wicked” has received since its premiere more than two weeks ago, it was a given the reception would be polarizing, because this is a film that refuses to adhere to our own conventions of what evil is supposed to look like, Berlinger doesn’t portray Bundy murdering on-screen, we don’t see the brutally evil side which most of us knew he had. No, the film is seen through the eyes of Bundy’s then girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer, after all, it’s based on her own book of the events and, by all accounts, she had no idea the guy she was dating was a murderer. Bundy told Elizabeth he never did those things, they had the wrong man, and she believed him, for a bit of time. Do you blame her?
This is a character study about a charming and intelligent guy who exhibited kindness to women and children alike, but also happened to be a murderer. Who else but Zac Efron to play Bundy, an actor known for his rugged good looks, nice-guy persona and overall chill demeanor. It’s a stroke of perceptively brilliant casting.
Berlinger’s film has Bundy and Kloepfer (Lily Collins) having a loving relationship, with his even adopting her daughter as his own. Collins is outstanding here, the best work of her career, as a woman strung between good and evil, it’s the ultimate Christian nightmare. But the near state of Utopia this man brought to Kloepfer’s life was quickly turned upside down when he was arrested in Utah and then Florida for two separate grisly murders. She still believed he was innocent, however, slowly but surely, dreaded hesitations snuck in. Despite all that, she stuck around with Bundy for the better part of 7 years, almost refusing to believe that this tall, dark and handsome man was the evil guy the media depicted him out to be. Watching the film, we understand why and that’s part of its snazzy lure.
Bundy pleads his innocence throughout the film, it’s as if he’s told himself a lie that he now truly believes, and one can only imagine an uninformed viewer, not knowing about Bundy or his crimes, actually believing that he is innocent whilst watching this film. Informed viewers, those that know very well about the 30 homicides that Bundy committed, in seven states no less, can still be persuaded by his innocent pleas watching ‘Extremely Vile’ because Efron’s Bundy is depicted as personable, peaceful and non-violent, until the very last shot. Efron is in on the hoax as well, trying his damnest to make us believe it, it’s a performance that will be talked about for years.
The film toys with our own preconceptions. It’s the evidence presented in court that makes the viewer decide which side they’re on. Bundy is humanized and judged not by any on-screen violence but by the rule of law, a court case which gives us the evidence and lets us forgo our own conclusions. This is of course much more chilling than having a by-the-books recount of the exact story, being told murder-by-murder, which is what I feared this movie would be about. It isn’t. The devil is the charmer here. [B+]