“Few people have the imagination for reality” is the quote “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” [EWSEV] opens with. At first, it seemed like an odd choice for what was to follow. It’s not the only creative choice in the movie that felt a bit unusual, but this is far from your typical True Crime biopic. All of these little choices and touches eventually reveal their purpose and coalesce into a brilliant package.
EWSEV is a movie that caters to those who have at least a cursory knowledge of Ted Bundy’s(Zac Efron) life just prior to being caught. He was in a long term relationship with Elizabeth [Kloepfer] Kendall (Lily Collins), a young single mother who stood by him and believed him to be innocent for a number of years. After all the facts have been laid bare, it’s easy to look back and question why someone “didn’t know better?” or wonder if they were blind to what was going on around them. But living in that moment, with someone you trusted, it’s hard to believe horrific accusations could be true. The only way to truly understand is to experience it from another’s perspective. Bundy may be the subject of the film, but it’s told through the perspective of Liz Kendall.
The script, written by Michael Werwie is based on the memoir that Liz wrote titled “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy.” From her perspective, Bundy was a great guy, occasionally almost too good to be true. Over the years, she had doubts, but her concerns, the man she knew, and the accusations being thrown around in the media didn’t appear to reconcile. It’s far easier to imagine some you love might be unfaithful than it is to believe them to be a serial killer. It’s a perfect application of that opening quote.
Director Joe Berlinger bookends the entire film with a virtual montage of sporadic flashbacks which frame the scene we see on the poster. Bundy is incarcerated, and Liz has come to talk to him in prison. The spastic time jumps felt wrong at first. But upon additional viewings, it became clear that Berlinger was intentionally using them to create an emotional effect. The jumps are disconcerting, but also feel so similar to how our mind to jump to random memories, especially in times of conflict or distress. It’s similar in concept to how lopsided framing was employed in season 1 of Mr. Robot to make viewers feel subconsciously uncomfortable. Even more so, it illustrates what Liz was going through. Even when she had all the facts (almost), even when she knew the truth, how could she rectify the moments of happiness she had with him?
Joe Berlinger has made an impressive career directing documentaries, many in the True Crime genre. It’s quite impressive to see what he’s done with his first narrative. I’ve viewed EWSEV three times now, and each time I’ve come away with a greater appreciation of it. It is packed full of tiny details and references. An individual in the background lingering when no longer in focus, a throwaway “I’m Sorry” that carries so much weight after the motivation behind it is understood. In addition to the self-contained references, the movie fits together like a puzzle piece with Joe Berlinger other Bundy/Netflix film, “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.” We had a chance to take part in a fascinating discussion with Joe Berlinger, in which he revealed that it was by pure chance he became attached to both of these films, and they were released on the same platform within months of each other! They make such informative companion films to each other, that it’s hard to imagine one existing without the other. In fact, I highly recommend watching “Conversations with a Killer” prior to EWSEV. There are moments in this movie that seem so ridiculous, outrageous, and perhaps satirical, that they must be exaggerated or fictionalized. Shockingly, they’re true. A few clips over the end credits provide a taste of this, but it takes the 4-part “Ted Bundy Tapes” to truly see what a circus it was. You could say, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” but that opening quote fits so much better.
**Keep an eye out for a very meta cameo by Joe Berlinger as a reporter interviewing Bundy. A scene that replicates footage found in “Conversation with a Killer”!
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile