Efron is Truly Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile as the Sinister Ted Bundy
By Remso W. Martinez
He doesn’t have that “evil” look to him as some actors do. You can close your eyes and think of onscreen serial killers and you’ll probably see faces like Malcolm McDowell from A Clockwork Orange or perhaps Christian Bale from American Psycho. Zach Efron however, the Disney star turned silver screen heartthrob, doesn’t need that “evil” look because, just like the real-life serial killer he’s based on, its what goes on in his mind and how he manipulates those around him that makes him a truly terrifying cinematic monster.
Based on the life and times of serial murderer Ted Bundy, Efron channels his classic boyish charm and golden charisma to bring to life one of America’s most infamous killers for a new generation. Much like the millions of Americans who only knew of Bundy from his wild and truly captivating televised interviews and confrontations in the courtroom, I knew essentially nothing of Bundy other than he was a killer of women, and damn good at it.
Throughout the film, the director Joe Berlinger leaves much to the imagination as the viewer isn’t clued in on much other than that Efron’s Bundy is incredibly personable, his onscreen girlfriend Liz is both incredibly paranoid yet deeply in love, and almost everyone involved in the case ranging from the cops to the defense counsel and even Bundy’s fling-turned-baby mama Carol Anne are being pulled along by the string of innuendo, misdirection, and deception Bundy is using to make it seem like the connected murders that all point to him is nothing but one giant conspiracy.
There are moments during the film where it is rather easy to divorce the reality of the story from the movie itself. You know Bundy is guilty, but at times you catch yourself asking “what if?” You want to trust the system which is piecing together commonalities between the murder victims from state to state, but you honestly can’t tell whether he killed all those women or not. When Bundy finally becomes his case’s pro-counsel, it’s almost easy to believe with his air of confidence and knowledge of the legal system that for a sliver of a moment he may be innocent.
Because of the emotional tour-de-force from scene to scene, you begin to realize that all that is going on is what makes Bundy such a terrifying person. He makes you trust him, even like him at times, and in several fleeting moments, you find yourself rooting for him. When the truth comes out and Bundy does, in his only solitary moment of honesty, admit to his girlfriend Liz how he murdered a female college student with a hacksaw, all the shock and horror the film was building upon makes you look at Efron in absolute shock and horror, realizing that what makes Bundy so lethal is that you didn’t want to believe he was evil in the first place. When the truth sinks in and you know in your gut he is the epitome of despotism, you feel that at times watching the film you were an accomplice and a fool for thinking for one fleeting moment maybe this Ted Bundy story would divert from the cold hard history the film is rooted in.
The look at the criminal justice system in this film shows a rather competent police force investigating the connected killings, a legal system at times tugging at the barriers of what it can and can’t get away with, and a media circus that can’t get enough of the mad show of incompetence and intrigue that reminds us of modern day court cases that steel all our focus and interests for all the wrong reasons.
From OJ Simpson to Casey Anthony, these cases remind us that while the court of public opinion might find them guilty, sometimes it is the Law which is right and the outside-observing peanut gallery which is wrong. That’s what makes these situations so much worse when the obvious evidence says one thing but our guts say something different entirely. The film takes this very real predicament and puts you solidly into the shoes of the character who ends up being the real protagonist, after all, Ted’s girlfriend Liz who tells Ted during a visit to jail that she does love him despite all the controversy and damning evidence, “that’s the problem.”
Liz, played by Lily Collins (who famously appeared on the Masterpiece Classics version of Les Miserable) ends up stealing the show from the captivatingly interesting Efron as the audience falls into Liz’s pit of confusion and despair, love and hatred, as she embodies the pain and loss of knowing a loved one may have actually committed the atrocities they had been accused of. Her tears and depression make you ask yourself how you would dare continue living normally if your sibling, parent, friend, lover, someone you felt you could be completely vulnerable with, turned into the monster that you could only imagine encountering in your most terrifying of nightmares.
My only complaint with the film, however, is probably that the film is missing something most serial killer films placed into the horror/drama category perform in excess: plain old blood and gore that drives the whole thing home. Perhaps this absence of seeing the murders take place, not knowing or seeing Bundy actually murder the victims, is why the film is so captivating; we want to see the murders in the way we go to a Godzilla movie expecting a giant monster fight, but alas, we never see Efron’s Bundy so much as harm anyone unless you count the Florida cop Bundy assaults as he attempts to flee from the law during his second escape from behind bars.
As a former political operative, part of watching this film feels familiar and somewhat voyeuristic. No, none of my clients were killers or criminals (well there is always that one guy that makes me wonder…) but they were all talented liars. They weren’t bullshit artists in the way you’d encounter a TV evangelist or a used car salesman, these people were so good at lying at times they could even fool themselves of their sainthood and innocence. Bundy’s false courage, empty tears, and hallow love remind us all that there are parts of humanity that would do anything to survive, and everything to paint the truth their way.
Bundy is dead, justice was served, but televising his case for the world to see was perhaps one of the worst things we could have ever done to our court system. Bundy’s ability to run the show at times without a doubt showed some sycophants, psychopaths, and villains that if you try hard enough, you too could convince a portion of the country that the deadly lion is really the innocent mouse. Looking at how Bundy was able to convince hoards of young women to attend his trial and plead his innocence, I’m never surprised to see people believing the most outrageous of political lies even when we know the people saying they are proud and open criminals themselves.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is one of Netflix’s best produced films. This is a film that should be on everyone’s watchlist whether you enjoy crime films or not. The suspense is authentic, the acting is on point, and the story is one I bet you haven’t seen before. Ted Bundy will be a case you’ll want to dive into further, and then ask whether this was a one-off case for the ages or if it was the start of a trend more deteriorating and tragic than we could assume: a media circus and complete shitshow that shows where there is blood, there are almost always going to be great ratings.
Remso W. Martinez is the author of Stay Away from the Libertarians and the upcoming book How to Succeed in Politics. He hosts the Remso Republic and The Remso Martinez Experience podcasts. He also recently became the editor of the Washington Times Opinion section.