Thursday, May 2, 2019

A dramatized look at Ted Bundy

Zac Efron makes a convincing Bundy, but it's not always easy to figure out what director Joe Berlinger has in mind.

I can't say that I recommend Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile -- a dramatized version of the murderous years of serial killer Ted Bundy's life. To be honest: I'm still grappling with my own reaction to this Netflix movie.

As someone who worked on a Denver newspaper's city desk back when Bundy was being held in an Aspen jail (he escaped), I'm not sure that I know much more about Bundy than I did before I saw Extremely Wicked. Directed by Joe Berlinger, who also created the Netflix series, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, the movie builds around Zac Efron's terrific performance as the charming, intelligent killer.

On the surface, Bundy was a young law student, who, as the judge at his trial stated, could have led an admirable life but who went a different way. Talk about understatement.

At the same time as I say that I can't recommend Extremely Wicked, I have to admit that I watched it with interest, mostly because Berlinger -- an Oscar winner for his documentary Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory -- makes two interesting choices: First, he doesn't show us Bundy committing his most brutal crimes and second he allows Efron to stay within a range of normality that's challenged by everything we already know about Bundy.

When Bundy gently caresses the neck of girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), we fear for her, even though she seems to be part of the "ordinary" existence that Bundy tries to maintain. This may make it sound as if Berlinger, who based the story on Kendall's book, The Phantom Prince; My Life With Ted Bundy, suggests that Bundy had a split personality. He doesn't.

If the movie has a point: It's this: This apparently normal guy -- good-looking and with plausible political aspirations -- is exactly the same fellow who mercilessly kills young women.

Efron gives a compelling performance but Berlinger doesn't dig deeply enough into Liz's love for Ted. As a single mom, she trusted Bundy with her young daughter. She couldn't deny her feelings for him. As Bundy moves through his various legal tribulations, Liz drinks too much. She struggles to fend off the truth about the man she once intended to marry. Perhaps Liz alone should have been the movie's main concern.

Like many true crime movies, Extremely wicked ends up in a courtroom. There, Bundy proves adept at defending himself. John Malkovich portrays the judge who presides over Bundy's trial, but Malkovich's innate eloquence can’t quite accommodate the homespun remarks of a judge who speaks the words that give the movie its lengthy title.

At 110 minutes, the movie feels long because, in the end, it has only one point to make: Bundy, whose ease and charm fooled many women into becoming victims, may have been able to fool himself, as well.

So don't ask me if you should see this movie. The answer depends on whether you want to see a sometimes intriguing movie that may leave you unsure about its merits. All I'll say is that Efron seldom has been better and that fascination with a 1970s story that once gripped the nation hasn't entirely faded.

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