“EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE” is the Ted Bundy biopic starring Zac Efron and Lily Collins that screened at this years Newport Beach Film Festival. Directed by Joe Berlinger, this is the story of Bundy and his relationship with longtime girlfriend Liz who after seeing a sketch on the news tipped off the police to her boyfriend’s name. An action that would start a (first of its kind) saga that captured the media and the world’s attention.
As a fan of true-crime and biopics this project felts like a perfect match. The potential was there but sadly this turned out to be a film that entertained in spots but in the end felt like a letdown. I thought the performances from both Zac Efron and Lily Collins were able to carry this film. There were times I felt Efron was able to disappear into the persona of Ted Bundy. But there was also time where he wasn’t. However, he carried this role with a clear effort that translated well onscreen. Although I think with the charisma and energy Efron brought to this role the script could have utilized him much more. The dialogue didn’t feel as tailored to Bundy as it could have at times and these were the moments it felt like Efron and not Bundy. Also, with the investment from Efron, capturing more of Bundy’s darker side in a couple of scenes would have gone a long way in creating tension and uneasiness.
Lily Collins was more than capable in her role and she too brought a range of emotion. She captured the free-spirited love of meeting Bundy and being instantly captivated by his charm. She also easily portrayed the moral torment of her decision, the waves of self-doubt and later in the film, gripping heartbreak, all with a convincing delivery. Many of her scenes were able to convey so much and it was at times without the need for dialogue. This was an aspect of the film I enjoyed, the provoked through and it was because of the physical performance from Collins that made it feel sincere. Malkovich, Osment and Parsons all provide the film with bright spots with capable performances as well to round out the cast.
Another positive was the third-act overall. This is when the performances shine the most in my opinion. This was when the story had me completely engaged and it was well-crafted on many levels. I enjoyed the emotional tension the final-act was able to create. The sequences in the courtroom despite knowing the outcome were framed up nicely to create cinematic tension. And the relationship between Bundy and Liz was able to hit the intensity it should have much earlier. The final-act is when the immersive feeling it was missing at times earlier in the film finally is able to hit. The way this script closes out the story-arcs was done with a subtle impact that does encapsulate of overall-arc of Bundy’s reign of terror and the hand Liz played in making it happen effectively.
But on the downside, I felt the first two acts were hard to connect with. It felt like a patchwork of information that didn’t flow together well. As a person with a knowledge of the real-life events surrounding Ted Bundy’s killings and his relationship with Liz Kendall, I was able to piece things together by filling in the very large and frequent gaps in information. But as it was it felt much too surface-level. I get the point of this was to change up the approach a bit to focus more on Liz and the torment her life took as a result of her relationship with Bundy. I can appreciate this attempt at taking the serial-killer biopic in a new direction. The problem was despite a focus on Liz, her story-arc felt extremely similar to many other character paths in these types of films.
I will admit it was all massively elevated from Collins performance. But I don’t feel there was an exploration of the real individual on the writing side that went much deeper than what we have seen from supporting characters in many other films like this. This took time from properly developing the story-line of Ted Bundy as well and the result to me was a biopic that seemed to lack focus on the perspective it wanted to tell itself from. A couple of scenes for Bundy’s arc. A couple scenes for Liz’s arc, and repeat. Some of these scenes were well-crafted but they didn’t fully connect into the compelling narrative they should have.
Director Joe Berlinger is phenomenal at creating riveting, highly informative documentaries. He also directed the recent four-part doc “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” on Netflix which I feel is one of the better docu-series in recent years. But this film had the flow of a documentary which doesn’t bode well for creating a story with a smooth flow that evolves the characters naturally. The first couple acts of this film were a series of independent scenes that at times didn’t tie into the next. There was often a lack of a clear timeline in some instances as well and there wasn’t a consistent progression to be engaged in.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say this film glorified Ted Bundy but there were moments he was painted as a slightly sympathetic figure in a nonchalant way. I understand this tone could have been from Bundy’s own warped perception of reality but regardless I don’t feel it was captured in the dialogue to solidify the fact he was a sinister killer that preyed on women. The atmosphere for the most part felt surprisingly neutral. For a person without a knowledge of the real events they could potentially be cast a misrepresented notion of who this man was. This was surprising to me as a couple of scenes here and there could have cemented that aspect very easily.
There were also some over embellishments for the sake of story-telling and cinematic effect that were noticeable. I know Bundy was considered attractive and charming. Even more so for what people imagine when thinking of a cunning serial-killer. But nearly every woman in this film turns their head to Bundy throughout and it felt forced during a number of occasions. It was minor, but small instances like these were hindrances to this being an insightful, but also intriguing biopic. The real-life spectacle that took place during this time was something that seemed perfectly tailored for a hard-hitting biopic that wouldn’t pull any punches to capture the true evil that Bundy was, and pay respects to his victims. Yet this script didn’t pull it off. Efron and Collins do their best but a lack of depth in covering what happened during this period turn this into a biopic that feels lacking in focus. It’s worth a shot as a streaming night at home but after watching it will be evident why the theatrical run was scraped.