Courtesy of Netflix
Zac Efron is doing everything he can to shed his Disney Channel teen heartthrob status by venturing into more adult-oriented productions. His latest resurgence might come as a shock to those who grew up watching the “High School Musical” stud belt those musical notes exceptionally. The project is the Ted Bundy drama “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile - an inside, sometimes sympathetic, look into the perspective of the most notorious serial killer on the planet, which is set to debut on Netflix this Friday.
Attempting to catch any angle imaginable, director Joe Berlinger (who also has a Ted Bundy doc on the streaming service) allows Efron a scenery chewing performance, showcasing the charismatic Bundy at his most vulnerable - and dangerous - before tackling his well-publicized exploits on screen. The film is predominantly told from the perspective of Bundy’s girlfriend Elizabeth Klopfer (Lilly Collins) - as it tracks the killer trying to start a family while seemingly murdering and raping women before coming home for supper.
As 16mm-styled home footage plays of the family, so does the audio of news reports detailing the graphic mutilations of the 30+ women Bundy preyed upon. It’s one of the better stylistic choices Berlinger makes along the way, though, not all of the angels play that well. Berlinger is deeply knowledgeable of the events as they unfold, and when the end credits plays the actual footage associated with the film, it’s crystal how dedicated he is to getting it right. Considering Bundy, at the time of his indictment, was an alluring sex symbol, Berlinger understood he needed someone whom was charismatically good looking and Efron fits the bill.
Following the unorthodox murder trial - which features such heavy hitters as Jim Parsons and John Malkovich, we get the sense that Berlinger’s initial approach is slowy floating away from him, The whole idea of “Extremely Wicked” was to show the film from Elizabeth's perspective, and it feels like she gets lost in her own movie. Collins, herself a fine actress, is reverted to the sideline, and it feels like Berlinger didn’t know to handle her inclusion, with scenes involving the character feeling mandated rather than warranted.
In reality, “Vile” belongs to Efron who deserves credit for trying his leg in more mature and heightened acting gigs. Watching Efron embody Bundy with the smooth talking edge of a law student trying to scheme his way out trouble is as good a showcase for Efron as any film on his resume. It takes some getting used too, but once the first hour of the film begins to dissipate, he convincingly falls in place - especially when audiences are so used to his winning charm, it’s intriguing how we can be repulsed by his attitude.
As a film in the serial killer genre, it’ll be decades before any filmmakers come close to capturing the magic of David Fincher’s “Zodiac” - and Berlinger pays homage to that film while trying to make artistic choices that seem ambitious, but are really the safe way out. Including the omission of the murders themselves, which, unintended or not, somehow makes Bundy’s innocence seem plausible (if only briefly before we snap out of that mindset). “Vile” would rather have the news clips or the soul infused soundtrack dictate the narrative, and the bolder choices are left on the cutting room floor.
As a star vehicle for Efron, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” plays as such, but for the meatier and more context driven narrative - look no further.