Joe Berlinger’s tragic, disturbing portrait of the final days of Ted Bundy is a quiet masterpiece
Director Joe Berlinger has long traded in making movies that juxtapose perceptions of truth vs. the actual truth while sifting through the messy, often mind-bending micro-truths that pulse between those two often radical extremes. From his acclaimed, award-winning documentary work like BROTHER’S KEEPER and the near-revolutionary West Memphis Three-chronicling PARADISE LOST pictures, to his once derrided, now considerably more respected horror film BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2, Berlinger refuses to settle for easy answers and is even less interested in easily-cast judgements.
The misunderstood and troubled BLAIR WITCH sequel is a particularly fascinating work, exploring the way those who commit dreadful crimes are often able to delude themselves, swallowing their own lies enough that they actually believe them. In the case of that picture, the theme is embedded with the body of a supernatural story but in Berlinger’s latest film, EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE, the tale told is fact-based, chronicling as it does the final reel of serial killer Ted Bundy’s reign of barbarism and deceit. Based on the book THE PHANTOM PRINCE by Bundy’s then-girlfriend Liz Kendall, the movie opts to use as its point of entry both Kendall’s intimate perceptions and observations of Bundy’s behavior as the law closes in, and also the way others in the media and elsewhere did. Because the capper and hook of Bundy’s public legacy was that no matter how much smoke seeped from his gun, he hid all culpability under a greasy sheen of mock-outrage and liquid charm. How could a man this intelligent, attractive and articulate possibly be the monster he was accused of being?
Maybe its because Berlinger chose this as the way to illustrate his tale, using actor and co-producer Zac Efron as his Bundy-puppet, that some critics and audiences have attacked the picture (which incidentally, is currently streaming on Netflx). Its possible they are missing the point of Berlinger’s faux-romanticised portrait or were expecting/demanding a more blood-spattered glimpse into the gynecology of Bundy’s horrific crimes. Generally speaking, audiences want absolutes. Especially now, in this often hysterical culture of outrage, where facts, empathy and investigation are second to the instant reward of shared anger, of being able to easily identify and crucify “the enemy”. That’s not what EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE offers. What Berlinger wants to do with this story is go so much deeper, not into WHAT happened, but HOW something like this could ever happen and, at the end of it, realizing that sometimes…there is no answer. Evil is not absolute. And the path to it and through it is often not easily charted.
There’s no point in getting into the guts of EXTREMELY WICKED’s story. It’s the story of Ted Bundy’s capture and trial and the web of deceit and theatrical denial he staged for the benefit of the people he wanted to keep close and the courtroom and international media whose gaze fed his sociopathic ego. Much of the details of this torturous trial and surrounding drama are public records and were well documented in the recent Berlinger-directed “true crime”Netflix doc CONVERSATIONS WITH A KILLER: THE TED BUNDY TAPES. But what is worth noting here is that underneath all of its sensationalism, style (Berlinger proves himself to be quite the stylist here and is empowered by Brandon Trost’s candy-colored cinematography) and Efron’s magnetic and rightfully praised performance, lurks a potent and savagley tragic love story. Berlinger is cynically aware that most love stories ARE in fact tragedies, bursts of broken dreams and broken promises. Of unmet expectations and disappointments. And Kendall (here played with fragile elegance by THE ENGLISH TEACHER’S Lilly Collins) lived to tell the tale of a much darker tragedy, of sleeping with the deadliest of enemies.
But back again to Efron and his truly great performance. Efron has always been a major talent, pushing hard against type and has – with the aid of those looking out for him – managed to curate a series of post-HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL projects that defied his fanbase’s expectations. Witness his work in movies like ME AND ORSON WELLS and THE GREATEST SHOWMAN and even the lowbrow NEIGHBORS films, wherein he made a noxious, reptilian fratboy wildly likable. So it’s no surprise just how good he is in this and it’s an easy mark to praise his work here. But it’s still a mark worth hitting. That said, EXTREMELY VILE is indeed Berlinger’s show all the way. He understands the power of the film’s title, lifted verbatim from the closing summation of Judge Cowart (John Malkovich) during the head-spinning travesty of a trial, the most powerful moment of which comes when Cowart comments, ruefully, how impressed he was with Bundy’s intellect and ability to navigate the courtroom and how, under different circumstances, it would have been an honor to work with him professionally.
But alas…such a happy life outcome was not to be.
That’s the real power of the film and of the Ted Bundy story itself. As some have suggested, Bundy might have been suffering from a mental illness that kept him enslaved to the sort of horrific violence he traded in. And yet – as in all human life – there were many levels to his persona, some high-functioning, others base. He had some good in him. That’s not an irresponsible thing to say or observe. That’s what makes Bundy and others like him so frightening…that they can hide their mania so well beneath that front.
And so Berlinger opts to show us a man who WAS loved. And at the end of it, after the gut-wrenching moment of truth, the only moment where Bundy truly sheds his skin and gives his former lover the moment of sickening grace she had long begged of him and silently admits his crimes with one quickly drawn word,”Hacksaw”, we are indeed left with a love story. And that moment of truth was perhaps – for Bundy – the most intimate gift he could give anyone. A momentary glimpse behind the curtain, a raw second of exposure that even he was too terrified to acknowledge to himself.
When Berlinger winds down the tale, with a tapestry of human misery and dead ends laced with the most heart breaking and melancholy music imaginable (courtesy of the great Marco Beltrami), you don’t walk away from this tale titillated. You don’t walk away outraged. You don’t walk away shocked.
You walk away…empty.
And that’s exactly how it should be.