Let’s get right to it: Zac Efron does a surprisingly great job as Ted Bundy in director Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, and it’s frankly a career-best performance. As the notorious serial killer, Efron’s able to play well against his type and pushes beyond that into some genuinely uncomfortable territory for fans of High School Musical. His Bundy has a sweaty faux-charisma about him that is never once genuine — you can always look in his eyes and see some sort of evil animal instinct behind the smile — and even though Berlinger’s film plays into some of the worst aspects of the Bundy mythos, namely that he turned heads everywhere he went (seriously, there are about five hundred shots of co-eds staring at Bundy as he walks down the street, which doesn’t feel, well, accurate), Efron’s generally able to rise above that.
He wears the mask of sanity slightly askew here, and he’s got a kind of wide-eyed crazy that’s barely concealed by Efron’s handsomeness. It’s an unnerving performance, especially when he’s able to let loose, but never so far that we aren’t able to see him as those close to him do. There’s even enough here for those not well-versed in Bundy’s history to be misguided by the first half of the film, and that’s where the movie has run ashore in the minds of some people, understandably frustrated by a trailer that seemed to advertise the film as a great serial-killing time. It is not a hagiography in the slightest — nor does it even really dramatize any of Bundy’s truly horrific deeds — but it is an attempt to put the viewer in the shoes of someone close to him.
That person is Elizabeth Kloeper (Lily Collins), Bundy’s longtime girlfriend and the person who would write the book that the film is ultimately based on. The two met in a Seattle bar in the ‘70s, and had what could be described as a typical romance. Kloeper, a single mother, was charmed by this fellow, who didn’t give a damn that she had a kid and seemed perfectly alright accepting her daughter as virtually his own. The two had dreams to go off and start their own family, to buy a house on a sound and adopt a dog (a running joke is made about how much dogs supernaturally hate Bundy), but that all changed when her man was stopped by the police in Utah in 1978. Soon enough, he’s booked on charges of attempted kidnapping, and Kloeper doesn’t want to believe the worst about her potential husband-to-be, and so she refuses to believe the woman on the stand.
When Bundy’s sent to prison, however, she begins to doubt his innocence, which ultimately will lead her to the revelation that the man she knew was a monster the whole time. Meanwhile, Bundy escapes from prison twice and ultimately is captured in Florida, where he is brought on trial with the death penalty on the table for the murders he committed at a FSU sorority house. He then begins a narcissist’s campaign to save his neck from the electric chair, theatrically firing his council and becoming his own lawyer. It’s a perfectly cromulent summary of the facts, but it doesn’t really add too much more to the story.
The problem with Vile is that it doesn’t quite know what story it wants to tell. Does it want to be an even-handed look at how we would handle the revelation that a person close to us has done absolutely heinous things outside of our life with them? That’s how it starts at least, until the film consigns Collins to simply slugging down glasses of vodka with Haley Joel Osment’s arm wrapped around her, given that she’s doing all that boring “emotional” stuff. Or does it want to be a macabre comedy of errors depicting Bundy’s televised trial, as the film becomes the minute a hammy John Malkovich shows up behind the bench to verbally spar with Efron and Jim Parsons (who plays the Florida prosecutor tasked with putting Bundy in the electric chair)? It feels like the film realized that Efron’s performance was an asset, not a liability, and corrected its course thusly over the course of the second half (though, given that the actor was an executive producer on the film, it could have perhaps made that decision himself).
Berlinger does a solid enough job attempting to make both films, though his fondness for incredibly stupid and ill-timed needle drops undercut him at a number of opportunities, but the result is ultimately something so middle-of-the-road and safe that it never manages to congeal into something unique. Seriously, this will be, in all likelihood, a PG-13 film, given how much more comfortable the MPAA is dealing with the headless corpses of women as opposed to their pubic hair, and it feels ultimately too safe to have any real meaning or bite to it. But as a way to pass two hours, especially in the current true-crime climate, it’s not a bad way to spend two hours, and, once again, Efron doesn’t disappoint. Just please, do yourself a favor and don’t watch the goddamn trailer.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of Sundance Institute; photo by Brian Douglas.