Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile review: A well-intentioned but discomforting exercise in glamourising a serial killer
Is it possible to make a genuine anti-war film? Francois Truffaut famously thought not; you might set out with the purest of intentions, but the spectacle and grandeur of cinema means that even the most ardently anti-war director will end up glorifying what he seeks to condemn.
While watching this new biopic of Ted Bundy, who during the 1970s murdered at least 30 women across America, I found myself wondering whether a similar question might be asked of serial killer movies. Is it possible to dramatise a killer without glamorising him? The director, Joe Berlinger, has insistently defended his film from the charge of glamorisation, describing it as a “portrayal of the psychology of deception and betrayal”. I believe that Berlinger believes this – that he intended to make a serious, austere study of misogynist psychopathology.
But there is more than one way to glamorise, and in refusing to challenge the myth of Bundy, Berlinger is guilty of the same fetishistic posture the American media took towards him during his trial, the first to be publicly televised in the United States. Even his casting of Zac Efron, whose startlingly assured performance is the film’s one saving grace, is not unproblematic.
The Bundy myth is that he was rapturously handsome, but the more disturbing, quotidian reality is that he looked deeply normal, and was possessed of an everyman charm that enabled him to blend in anywhere. Efron, by contrast, is absurdly beautiful, and though his Bundy is slimy and self-aggrandising, he is also magnetic and alluring in a way that makes every woman he lays eyes on come undone.
It is to Berlinger’s credit that he refuses to display Bundy’s violence on screen, instead assuming the perspective of Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), Bundy’s long-term girlfriend. But here again the film fails. There is no attempt to make Kendall characterful, to interrogate the terms of their relationship, or ask why she stayed with him even after his crimes came to light. He was charming, and she loved him, and that’s that. In fact, all the women in the movie are portrayed as dumb rubes, utterly helpless in their devotion to Bundy; children enraptured by a cheap magic trick. Collins is dreadful, quite honestly, but I’m not sure how much more anyone could have done with such a lifeless role.
Yet more problems arise when the trial begins. The intention in this segment was clearly satirical, and in filming it in the schlocky, embossed style of a Lifetime TV movie, Berlinger seems to be shooting at media criticism. But because Bundy’s monstrousness hasn’t been cinematically established – all we’ve seen him do is smile at women in the library – there’s no sense that the media’s infatuation with him was unwarranted or uncouth.
I think it is possible to make a film about a serial killer without glamorising them. Last year’s My Friend Dahmer, for instance, was a fascinating study of early-stage psychopathy. So perhaps a better question would be: would Ted Bundy have enjoyed this movie?
I suspect that the answer to that might make Berlinger uncomfortable about the film he has created.