Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (R)

Netflix

Moviegoers of 2019 have become familiar with the phrase “Part of the journey is the end” through that really popular superhero movie you may have seen. Something similar to that now-famous truism presents itself through the latest Ted Bundy film. In the case of the Bundy film, the lesson learned is that the end often justifies the journey, at least in the realm of story.

The question behind the premise on Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is, well, shocking – how in the world could a normal, well-adjusted woman fall in love with a monster like Ted Bundy? To filmmaker Joe Berlinger’s credit, the film draws its viewers into the narrative in such a way that the question feels more like an actual possibility than an incredible historical anomaly.

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The story behind Extremely Wicked is incredibly compelling, based on the relationship between Ted Bundy and Elizabeth Kloepfer as documented in Kloepfer’s 1981 memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, and Berlinger wisely chooses to modify his film’s story as little as possible to retain the inherent human interest bound up in Kloepfer’s account. Berlinger is a man who knows the life of Ted Bundy quite well, having released a documentary on the serial killer based on the Death Row interview record of journalist Stephen Michaud (that documentary, titled Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, is also available on Netflix). While Berlinger’s documentary has its critics, their criticisms do not arise from a lack of familiarity with Bundy’s crimes and psychosis, leaving the viewer of Extremely Wicked confident in the creator’s bonafides, setting up a pleasant surprise regarding how well the documentarian performs as a historical dramatist.

To be frank, the experience of watching Extremely Wicked is significantly off-putting because the viewer is regularly left asking, “Wait, is this movie trying to make me sympathetic to Ted Bundy?” It is only after seeing the final scene of the movie, a confrontation between Bundy and the in-movie avatar of Elizabeth Kloepfer (named Liz Kendall), that the entire film comes together and justifies the awkwardness felt along the way. What emerges in Kendall’s face-off with Bundy is not merely a powerful interaction between the two leads of the film but a validation of everything that has come before.

Viewed from the perspective of hindsight, Extremely Wicked is seen to be a film of considerable craftsmanship. The moments referenced above where the viewer is provoked by the call to sympathize with Bundy are revealed to be a skillful means of drawing the viewer into the experience of Liz Kendall, increasing that viewer’s ability to sympathize with (if not fully embrace) Kendall’s affections for her phantom prince. The viewer doesn’t so much fall in love with Bundy as see how a particular woman in particular circumstances might do the impossible and find something lovable in the façade Ted Bundy presented her with. It is in this way that the shocking question behind the film comes to feel credible in a way it did not when the viewer first pressed play.

It is not only Berlinger’s abilities as a storyteller that emerge in a favorable light by the end of this movie. Zac Efron, an actor whose previous work made his casting as Bundy a surprise, shows himself to be a fine character actor. Efron’s work in the courtroom drama of the last third of Extremely Wicked is distinctly excellent, highlighting his charisma even as it recasts his previous work in the film as a demonstration of respectable range. The casting director of this film was particularly kind, inadvertently I’m sure, to Bundy in casting Efron for the role – but exceeded this generosity even further in the casting of John Malkovich as Judge Edward D. Cowart. Malkovich and Efron are a treat in their interactions and the charm of Judge Cowart as portrayed by Malkovich far eclipses what is presented in the record of the historical recordings of Cowart’s addresses to Bundy. As an actress, Kaya Scodelario’s portrayal of Carole Anne Boone, Bundy’s latter-day love interest and proxy, is likewise strong, delivering a Boone whose desperation and disorder lays just below a thin layer of self-control.

Still, all the performances in Extremely Wicked are praiseworthy. Jim Parsons is solid in his portrayal of Bundy’s lawyerly adversary Dan Dowd. Nonetheless, the performance is quickly forgotten, submerged under the shadow of Efron and Malkovich. Haley Joel Osment provides a similarly solid and forgettable turn as Kendall’s Bundy-bounce-back. Sadly, Lily Collins has little to do as Kendall, at least until that crucial final confrontation. For most of the film, Collins is merely reacting to Bundy, sometimes in smiling disbelief, and at others crying her way through the death of her willingness to continue believing. The power of Collins’ performance at the end of the film leaves the viewer wishing the director had found something more for Collins to give her talents to earlier in the movie.

The story of Ted Bundy is now well-trod ground. Interest remains, obviously, but the elements of the tale have been largely mapped. Elizabeth Kloepfer’s story is the rare opportunity to look at this butcher with fresh eyes. What, then, are the more significant conclusions to be drawn from this film?

One mistaken conclusion seems close at hand.  It would be easy to see Extremely Wicked as a parable about love leaving us exposed to predators. And while that may be true – at least in part – it would be erroneous to conclude that loving is the problem. No human is well-served by giving themselves over to cynicism. Remember too that Kendall is the one who gave Bundy’s name to the police. She loves, yes, but in a way that is observant and informed. In that way Kendall may represent, albeit in a semi-fictional context, the ideal harmonization of Scripture’s insistence that love believes the best and that Christians are to live in the world as wisely as serpents.

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Second, Liz deeply needs Bundy to validate her actions. She did the right thing in giving Bundy’s name to the police but her experience of being right, her experience of justification in this action, is dependent upon whether Bundy is actually guilty or innocent. Here, too, Liz is in tension. Doing the right thing to protect others, which Liz did in giving Bundy’s name to the agents authorized to investigate such things, doesn’t always feel like the right thing and often does feel like guilt. The lesson to draw here is that people of integrity do what is right, full stop. The cost of doing what is right is often high, excruciatingly high, and may continue weighing on the individual for a very long time. If the rewards of convenience and cheap peace are the only incentive, then doing right is not worth the cost. However, if there is such a thing as objective right and wrong rooted in God’s own character, by which He governs His creation, then the reward of loving Him and loving our neighbor is sufficiently great to provide motivation to pursue the upright course.

“Part of the journey is the end.” Fair enough, but the phrase is a bromide. We need more. Sometimes the end determines the value of the journey. That goes for film, as Extremely Wicked demonstrates. More importantly, though, it goes for the lives we live under the sun. Integrity is worth the cost it requires in a fallen world, a surprising reminder to find in a film about Ted Bundy.

Jeff Wright is a husband, father, pastor, educator, and podcaster. He lives in very rural Middle Tennessee and watches a lot of movies. You can hear more from him on The Pop Culture Coram Deo Podcast.

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