Zac Efron Channels Serial Killer Ted Bundy in ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” stands back and observes with confused tension how people gravitate around demented charisma. When we hear about serial killers or the current wave of mass shooters, it is nearly always common for relatives and friends to express how shocked they are, because they could never fathom someone was secretly planning such horrific deeds. This Netflix drama uses infamous murderer Ted Bundy as the focus, but it’s really about the women in his life, who for whatever reason remain loyal or emotionally attached. Fittingly the director is acclaimed documentarian Joe Berlinger, an expert at telling stories of the tragic and strange.

The film opens in the late 1970s in Washington where single mother and office worker Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) goes out for drinks and meets the charming, well-mannered Ted Bundy (Zac Efron). The two hit it off and become a couple. Bundy seems like the ideal partner. He’s a law student, makes breakfast and gets along great with Kendall’s daughter Molly (Ava Inman). But when Bundy is arrested by a highway patrolman in Utah he soon finds himself the suspect in an attempted kidnapping case. He assures Kendall it’s all a terrible misunderstanding, or even part of some strange plot against him by the authorities. He writes letters from prison, even escapes from a courthouse, but it soon becomes apparent he’s suspected of more than just kidnapping. When Bundy is implicated in several murders of young women he goes to trial in Florida, insisting on representing himself in court. Rushing to Bundy’s side is Carole Anne Boone (Kaya Scodelario), an old acquaintance who becomes obsessed with him. As the trial becomes a perverse media spectacle and Liz attempts to put her life back together, the truth about who Ted Bundy really is comes to horrifying light.

In a sense “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” works best as a companion piece to Berlinger’s other Ted Bundy project released earlier this year on Netflix, the docuseries “The Ted Bundy Tapes,” which told the killer’s story via testimonies and audio recordings. There we received the whole, sad canvas of Bundy’s life from childhood to the electric chair. With this movie Berlinger is more concerned with what it must have felt like to be a part of Bundy’s life during his trial. This is a fractured profile of Bundy and the two key women in his twisted world. It can almost be called a stroke of genius to have cast Zac Efron in the lead role. He not only carries the film, helping it overcome its flaws, but embodies a major theme of the narrative. Part of Bundy’s infamy is his reputation as a charmer, a smooth talker who lured his victims into a comfort zone before brutally killing them. Himself considered a pop culture heartthrob, Efron embodies for many viewers the very idea of attractiveness, thereby providing an eerie sense of how real life villains don’t always look the part.

Efron delivers his best work since “Me and Orson Welles,” wisely choosing not to overplay Bundy. In early scenes he appears as the average bar patron you would see flirting, later coming across as the stereotype of a “nice guy” in domestic moments with Kendall. When he gets arrested and goes to prison Efron’s Bundy is pathetically aloof, convinced he can chatter box himself out of anything. There’s a hint of dark humor when he jumps out of a courthouse window, escaping into the streets. But it isn’t comedy, just sad. Bundy’s own down to earth friendliness, mixed with an ego waiting to always lash out, catches certain people off guard, but definitely not the presiding judge, Edward D. Cowart (John Malkovich). The courtroom scenes are a testament to a truly bizarre moment in the annals of American crime, as Bundy represents himself, humiliates his own lawyers and actually manages to get a motion or two sustained. By the end of it all Cowart even admits Bundy would’ve probably made a decent lawyer, had he not chosen such a wrong turn in life. Efron turns Bundy into an insane portrait of self-denial, stubbornly claiming he’s not a killer when all of the evidence, including forensic, is impossible to deny.

If Efron is creepy and convincing, with the overall story being undeniably fascinating, the flaw that keeps “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” from being a better film is its shaky plotting. The screenplay by Michael Werwie, based on Kendall’s memoirs, should be primarily her story, but Berlinger is so overtaken by Bundy that by the third act she recedes into the background. We never get to know Kendall’s own background, or even that of Boone, who becomes loyal to Bundy to the point of bribing guards for conjugal visits. They both merely exist as symbols of Bundy’s capacity to warp minds. Even when Kendall finds a better boyfriend in co-worker Jerry (Haley Joel Osment), she remains emotionally linked to Ted, feeling guilty over his predicament. But why? Maybe that’s the point, there are no answers.

Berlinger deserves credit for not turning this into a gore fest. Never do we see gruesome murders, rape or decapitation onscreen. The focus is all on Bundy as a disturbingly banal figure. Only near the end, when Kendall faces him in jail at the point of a mental breakdown, demanding answers, do we get a flashback glimpse at the killer’s actions. Where “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” lacks in a tighter narrative, it makes up by conjuring a feeling of dread and insecurity. With his memorable performance Zac Efron reminds us that even good manners can be cover for a monster.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” releases on Netflix and in select theaters May 3.