Sundance 2019: Zac Efron, Ted Bundy and a Portrait of a Serial Killer - Rolling Stone
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Sundance 2019: Zac Efron, Ted Bundy and a Portrait of a Serial Killer

The festival premieres Joe Berlinger’s ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,’ in which the ‘Neighbors’ star plays one of the world’s most notorious mass murderers

Zac Efron, Macie Carmosino and Lily Collins appear in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile directed by Joe Berlinger, an official selection of the Premieres program the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Brian Douglas.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Zac Efron and Lily Collins appear in 'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.'

Brian Douglas

A man walks into a bar. He’s handsome enough to attract the attention of the ladies in this tavern, including Liz Kloepfer, a single mother who’s been dragged to the tavern by her best friend for a night out. He notices her, too. They meet-cute at the jukebox, talk, flirt. He takes her home. She invites him in. They spend a chaste night together. When she wakes up, Liz finds him in the kitchen, fixing breakfast for her toddler. You can see her thinking: Who is this guy?  He’s attractive, polite and good with kids. Did I just hit the jackpot?

And then the audience laughs, because the man who’s wearing an apron and kissing her gently on the cheek and holding a conspicuously large knife in his hand is … well, he’s Ted Bundy. It’s 1969. Ten years later, he’ll be convicted in Florida of two murders, three counts of attempted murder and two counts of burglary. Twenty years after that picture of domestic bliss plays out, he’ll be strapped into an electric chair. And 50 years later, we’ll be watching a biopic about everything that happened between these two people before that switch was pulled.

An attempt at a dual portrait of both a notorious serial killer and the woman who loved him, Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile — this was the phrase that Judge Edward D. Cowart used to describe the crimes before issuing the death penalty — is blessed with an extremely tabloid-friendly title. It will forever be referred to, however, as “The Movie Where Zac Efron Plays Ted Bundy.” This is the film’s casting coup, getting the sexy movie star to play the sexy killer. It’s something that’s solid gold in conception and leaves something to be desired in the execution (pun unintended) — which is a pretty good way to describe the movie as a whole. A colleague referred to it as “Bohemian Rhapsody for mass murderers” as folks exited the early morning Sundance screening, which is a harsh indictment. It’s not quite that bad. But it’s not what you’d call traditionally “good,” either.

Which is a pity on several fronts. For starters, Berlinger is one of the foremost true-crime documentarians working today; if he didn’t invent the genre alongside his co-director Bruce Sinofsky with 1992’s Brother’s Keeper and the landmark Paradise Lost trilogy, he definitely set the high-bar standards for it. He happened to be working on a docuseries about Bundy for Netflix — Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes — when Michael Werwie’s script dropped into his lap. The concurrent projects “informed and helped one another to be better,” he’s said, and you can guess that his thoroughly researched, absolutely stellar nonfiction take on the subject helped inform the authenticity of the recreated sequences and greatest-hits moments from Bundy’s post-arrest public appearances here. (You should definitely check out Conversations, provided you can stomach some genuinely nauseating descriptions of what the killer did to earn such enduring fascination.)

It’s tough to think what Extremely Wicked gave to the other work, however, because there’s not much it’s saying about Bundy or Kloepfer past “he did a really great job of pretending he was normal” and “she suspected him but still believed him, until she couldn’t.” Even the most casually familiar-with-the-case filmgoers know the first part — that the dashing guy used his looks to lure victims, avoid suspicion and aid in asserting his innocence is Bundy 101. And while the script draws from Kloepfer’s book The Phantom Prince (written under the name “Elizabeth Kendall”), it seems to stall every time it goes back to her story. Lily Collins (Mirror Mirror) does her best to give you a sense of how conflicted this woman is, especially once Liz reveals that she was the person who initially gave her boyfriend’s name to the cops as a suspect. But you can feel the film sort of counting the seconds until it can get back to Bundy escaping prison, unleashing his charm offensive, denying any involvement in a number of very similar homicides, etc. For a movie that wants to make Kloepfer’s perspective a big part of the story, the sequences of her getting phone calls and downing tumbler of vodka sure feel perfunctory.

Because like Paradise Lost — the Milton one, not the docs — the devil gets the best lines in this story. You could not be faulted for thinking that this true-crime biopic had been reverse-engineered in the name of getting Efron to play Bundy, though this wasn’t the case (he told Variety the project was already in motion and in fact, had doubts about taking the role). Yet enlisting the Neighbors star to weaponize his drop-dead gorgeousness in the name of playing the handsome sociopath is arguably Extremely Wicked‘s big saving grace; watch Efron sweep various women off their feet, including his old coworker Carole Anne Boon (Kaya Scodelario) or make various female admirers swoon in the courtroom, and you get why the casting makes sense. Only there’s really nowhere for the talented actor to go with the performance, except outrage over these “crazy accusations” or arrogance while acting as his trial defense lawyer. His scenes with John Malkovich’s judge have a nice back-and-forth rhythm, but you still feel like so much is simply being recited per transcripts or barely skimming the surface. Efron gives you a smooth criminal. So why does nothing feel compelling about his criminal behavior or his denials overall?

Thankfully, Berlinger only recreates one of the serial killer’s murders, waiting for a key exchange between Bundy and Kloepfer at the end to give you a taste of his degeneracy. It’s the second best scene after that early shot of the maniac smiling in an apron, and the one moment where you feel Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile lives up to its title. Otherwise, you’re left to kill time counting the celebrity cameos (if you didn’t already know Metallica’s James Hetfield plays a cop, you might miss his brief appearance entirely) and admiring how faithfully they staged press conferences, courtroom outbursts et al., per the requisite credit-roll footage of the real thing. Berlinger already has one extremely eye-opening, shockingly jaw-dropping and vital portrait of the man behind the male model mask. You wish he’d just kept things on the strictly vérité level and left it at that.

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