Part of the Summer 2019 Netflix Jubilee

I can think of one thing that's interesting to me about Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile, a heavy hitter at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival that ended up as one of Netflix's biggest releases of the year. Namely, it provides an especially clear demonstration of the truth I take to be self-evident, that critics don't really know what they're talking about when they talk about screen acting. You needn't look all that far - farther than this site, but not that far - to find people lambasting the film for its many, many aesthetic, narrative, and moral shortcomings, but still taking a breath to say, "but also, Zac Efron is pretty terrific as charismatic serial killer Ted Bundy". And then follows this or that explanation of how Efron uses his slick, Disney-honed pretty boy looks to hide the chilly, flat, psychopathic interior of one of the most infamously depraved murderers in the history of the United States. Meanwhile, I sit watching the film, and I truly don't think that Efron even has the wherewithal to draw focus from the shaggy period-appropriate wigs that the hair and makeup department have swaddled him in. But what I do think is that a generically handsome, well-honed man as Efron can be made to look effectively animalistic and brutish and all the other things when you make a point of lighting him all over like normal, but restricting his eye light, so his eyes always seem to be hiding in the back of dark pools of shadow. Also, "you" are in this case cinematographer Brandon Trost (who has what turns out to be several films' worth of experience shooting Efron) and the lighting crew. Basically, I think critics are praising Efron's breakthrough as an actor when they really mean that the film had some real fine gaffing.

In truth, I fibbed in my lede sentence. That thing I just said isn't really "about" Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile in any useful sense. So actually, there is a grand total of nothing I found interesting about the film.

But before I leave off of beating up on other critics, here's another thing: the standard pitch is that the movie (whose clamorous title is a quote from the judge's sentence condemning Bundy to death by electrocution at the conclusion of his 1979 trial) is about the terror and sorrow of being in love with such a gifted sociopath, discovering only slowly and against every single scream of denial from your conscious brain that the man you wanted to share your life with is a uniquely vicious, merciless killer. That is, in short, this is the story of Ted Bundy as told through the eyes of his sometime girlfriend, Liz Kendall (Lily Collins). And I know that's the ad copy and all, but it just, like, ain't. That's not even an opinion, it's just a basic fact about how Michael Werwie's screenplay is structured. If you're going around saying this is told from Kendall's perspective, all I'm hearing is that you have an underdeveloped understanding of what "perspective" means in storytelling. Hint: it does not mean that the character whose perspective we share completely disappears from the movie for something like a full third of its running time.

But I get it - if Extremely Loud & Incredibly Vile is going to do much of anything, it's going to do it through Collins's Liz. Since it is preferable to watch movies that do anything rather than movies that don't, it makes sense why we might wish for the film to make her our POV character. The sad truth, then, is that X-Tremely Wickd is, in fact, a movie that doesn't do anything, and moreover takes its sweet damn time about not doing it. There is no adjective vaguer and less helpful for a review to pull out than "boring", but there is also no adjective more urgently pressing itself forward in connection with this film. If it has a point, or a personality, it is beyond my means to tease it out. It is very little other than two hours of watching a sociopath lie, while a police procedural happens offscreen, and the film tries to square the circle of asking us to pretend that we don't already know that Bundy is guilty (this is where the "from Kendall's perspective" thing is meant to come into play), while not providing any dramatic material that would be interesting for even a fraction of a second if he turned out to be innocent.

It's really too bad that the film fucks up its nominal hook so badly, because the American serial killer film is in dire need of new angles. The last genuinely fresh film in this most dubious of genres, Zodiac, was made 12 years ago, and not once in those 12 years have we seen a movie - fiction, non-fiction, or documentary - do anything with a serial killer that hasn't been done. The idea behind Wickedly Shocking (what would it be like to be one of the people who solemnly declares "he seemed so normal" in front of the news cameras) isn't actually something that hasn't been done: B-movie history is littered with stories of women finding to their slow-dawning horror that the kind, handoms man they're sharing their life with is a murderous butcher. But none of those were about such a singularly infamous figure as Bundy, nor do they take the sober remove from the material that director Joe Berlinger insists upon. As he might; Berlinger, making just his second narrative feature, is a documentary filmmaker whose work has almost entirely spent time in the true crime field, most famously the Paradise Lost trilogy of activist films. He's made his entire career on the back of emotionally reined-in, journalistic studies of hideous cruel acts of violence, and that restrained carries straight through into his Bundy picture, which doesn't really even describe any of the crimes in more than glancing detail until the final courtroom sequence.

So, yeah, there's definitely some potential here. But it all gets squandered on deathly dully, repetitive sequences of Bundy outsmarting cops, using that famous charisma that everybody always talks about when they call him the sexiest of all American serial killers. Which is also not something the film does anything with, having apparently concluded that casting Efron was all of the work it needed to do in that direction. At any rate, the film's procedural elements are too shallow and redundant to be interesting for more than a few minutes, and the characters remain too remote, both in the writing and in Efron & Collins's drab performances, to provide the film with any human core. Kaya Scodelario, as Bundy's other historically important girlfriend, Carole Ann Boone, almost provides that core; she's full of passion (for justice, for handsome men, for grandstanding) and raging energy, and maybe she could even be the anchor for the story this wanted to be about Collins's drippy Liz. But that's not what we got; it's just one more little flicker of the much better thing that this could be if it wasn't going slightly awry in basically every moment of its storytelling.