Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) by Joe Berlinger
Review by Nicholas Armstrong
Towards the end of Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands, which follows the cross-country murder spree of Kit Carruthers from the perspective of a local teenage girl named Holly, Kit takes a peaceful front-seat ride with the police after leading them on a high-speed car chase. Kit is not handcuffed, nor is he disrespected by the two arresting officers in any way. Instead, the officer lounging in the back seat utters what is, to me, the film’s defining line: “I’ll kiss your ass if he don’t look like James Dean”. Yes, the film ends with Kit being sentenced to death, but his immense privilege as a handsome-coded white man allowed him to do so on his own terms.
Kit’s story, while inspired by Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, is also highly reminiscent of infamous serial murderer Ted Bundy. In fact, it’s that precise reaction that the police officer has to Carruthers that seemed to worry folks when it was announced that Bundy, who was guilty of torturing and humiliating countless young women, would be portrayed by heartthrob Zac Efron, arguably most famous for his role as Troy Bolton in the High School Musical franchise. This announcement caused a lot of outrage and controversy, and these concerns are certainly more than rational, especially because it was Bundy’s charm that he took advantage of in order to commit the horrific crimes he’s guilty of. As a species, we are not innocent of fawning after men who were violent serial killers and terrorists because they fit the mould of what we’re told is attractive (i.e. tall white men with beards and/or rugged facial features).
While all of this is valid – and my defense of the film is by no means intended to make anyone feel as though the film is essential viewing, especially considering how triggering a watch it could be – what I felt was left out of the discourse was that documentarian Joe Berlinger was behind it. Berlinger was most recently responsible for a Netflix series about Ted Bundy himself (entitled Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019)), which I will get back to, but also the Paradise Lost (1996-2011) films, which examine the similarly gruesome case of the West Memphis Three, a group of teen boys who, Berlinger argues, were wrongfully accused of the murder of three young boys in Arkansas. In order to get an idea of what I had in mind going into the film at hand, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019), let’s look, for a moment, at Berlinger’s history of portraying such horrific events through text.
In their three 2-hour documentaries, Berlinger and co-director Bruce Sinofsky highlight the role that truth played in how these real-life events unfolded, and especially how that intersected with the justice system. In the film, we hear the perspectives of the accused, as well as the parents of the accused and the parents of the three children who were murdered and left in the woods. Berlinger and Sinofsky draw attention to the showmanship happening during the trial as a tool used to overstate the importance of the justice system, which the documentary shows to be untrue. The coercion that takes place in the trial on all sides suggests that from the beginning, the stances held by the individuals involved in the case were influenced by emotion and promptly manipulated by the court in order to find a black-and-white solution for a nuanced situation. The film’s thesis is that these teens were scapegoats for a highly emotional situation, selected solely because of their interest in heavy metal music, horror films and the Wiccan religion. While this is taken very seriously by the documentarians, there are also some highly ironic tools used in order to prove said thesis, which you’ll see becomes a staple of Berlinger’s filmmaking style. The film is scored by Metallica, the very music that the people who accused the teens credit with inspiring the crimes, but Berlinger’s extratextual engagement with the thesis of Paradise Lost doesn’t stop there. It continued when he was hired for the 2000 horror sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.
Blair Witch 2, while ostensibly a sequel to the immensely popular The Blair Witch Project (1999), has just as much to do with Berlinger’s own Paradise Lost. In fact, he essentially used a metatextual Blair Witch sequel in order to satirically comment on how Blair Witch intersects with the way he engaged with the case of the West Memphis Three. The film, quite literally, wrestles with the impact of the original Blair Witch film had on the citizens of Burkittsville, Maryland, where the film was set. In the town, a local resident and horror fan leads a group of teens on a tour of the woods in which the original was filmed. The characters in the film, like the teens in Paradise Lost, share with one another that they are judged for wearing all black and practicing the Wiccan religion. The teens, who are isolated in an abandoned building in the woods for the majority of the film, are later framed by an evil presence in the woods after the footage they’ve recorded is tampered with in order to make it appear that they took part in a human sacrifice/orgy. It would be easy to interpret this film’s thesis as the exact opposite of Paradise Lost, until you realize that the film has an ironic slant, instead depicting what the citizens of a small, conservative community believe is true of these teens. Earlier in the film, when one teen asks the other why they came on the tour if they didn’t believe in the Blair Witch, she replies “I thought the movie was cool.”
All of this is essential in understanding how Berlinger approached sharing the difficult story of Bundy’s crimes and subsequent trial without any fear of misinterpretation or romanticization – Berlinger’s approach to fiction and dramatization is heavily influenced by his documentary style. In the doc, once Berlinger encouraged Bundy to start speaking in the third person, which Bundy eventually turned into describing this person as “the entity,” he began revealing little bits of information about himself that he previously hadn’t. Bundy, as a law student, appeared to have a deep fascination with storytelling, particularly as a device for abetting his delusion. Berlinger’s dramatized film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, takes that away from him, lending the perspective back to his primary love interest, Liz Kendall, portrayed by Lily Collins. It could also be read as aligning itself with the general perspective of those who were tricked by Bundy’s charm, at times even including Bundy, as he was a delusional person who steeped himself in the story of his own innocence. In our first introduction to Ted, chronologically, not only do we see Liz’s immediate infatuation with him, but a group of women appear to be taken with his presence as well. It doesn’t stop there either: later on, we see women asked about Bundy outside of the courts, all of whom offer some variation of doubting that someone who looked like Bundy could ever be guilty of such crimes. It speaks to the sheer vastness of Bundy’s privilege that after having been accused of so many indefensible crimes, he was still given a platform to rewrite people’s perspectives on him on such a massive scale.
The premise of casting Efron as Bundy allows him to incorporate the charms and tics that we have come to know him for, making them hypervisible and ultimately forcing us to question why we are drawn to those tics in the first place. As you’d expect, Berlinger plays with several visual ironies throughout the film, playing news reports of murders and abductions over video footage of Liz and Ted’s romantic relationship flourishing. These are the types of juxtapositions Berlinger is constantly throwing at the audience. The entire middle act of the film depicts the many court cases Bundy was a defendant in, lying through his teeth without a shade of remorse, interspersed with footage of a struggling Liz Kendall, watching court coverage on her television at home. The way it juxtaposes these two tones show how emotionally tuned in the film is to what is typically left out of the story: the destruction that Bundy left in his path, whether it was in the life of someone he murdered or merely encountered. It even feels as though there is a purposefulness to the way that the story drags on, allowing time for the audience to forget who and what it is they’re watching before promptly remembering, inducing a feeling of complicity in the audience. It’s an effective tool because it draws attention to the ways that audiences will buy into the lies that they’re told through the media, especially when it intersects with celebrity. All of that is intentional on the part of the media and Bundy, of course. Berlinger frequently makes a point of reminding us that Bundy was a law student, giving him an awareness of how the justice system works and thus allowing him to manipulate it in his favor. At a certain point, though, it is no longer about whether Bundy is innocent or guilty; it’s that he was given the opportunity to defend himself in the first place. Even worse, that he had enough respect from the court to freely perform and convince the public that he has done nothing wrong. The greatest piece of acting that comes from Efron’s casting is when he claims innocence through tears after finally being sentenced to death. Throughout the film, you see that Efron is constantly contemplating in his performance as Bundy, operating sociopathically in order to determine his best possible outcome through the manipulation of the people around him; and in that aforementioned scene, you see multiple parts of Bundy’s face twitching – reacting to what should have been his immediate outcome – and Bundy’s true self, Bundy’s performance and even Efron come out all in that single shot. He’s breaking, but he refuses to show it. Not when there’s an opportunity that the public – or the judge, who assures Bundy he has “no animosity” towards him – see him as the monster he is.
I have a high tolerance for films that function heavily on a highly-conceptual premise, so I enjoy this middle section of the film that relies on Efron’s multilayered performance and Berlinger’s several purposeful omissions from the story, but what really cements the film’s greatness is the final 20 minutes of the film. The entire film is an experiment showing how easy it is for the truth to be manipulated. In this sense, it’s Berlinger revisiting his thesis from Paradise Lost from a different angle, re-examining the justice system and suggesting that the same tools can be applicable no matter what the stance of the defendant is. The experimentation that Berlinger does here is essential to understanding his approach to this subject matter, but the film’s ending strips away any power that Bundy wielded throughout the film. Liz visits Bundy in jail, seemingly prepared to steadfastly ignore his attempts at manipulation. Bundy continues to claim innocence, even scrounging to reminisce over their past romantic relationship together, but in this scene, there is no sense of charm. Bundy appears to the audience as he really is: a sick, pathetic monster. Liz berates Ted, guilting him and begging him to confess. Ted assures Liz that “this is all gonna end,” genuinely appearing to believe it, but this only cements for Liz (and the audience) that he’s done nothing but perform his entire life, leaving her with the upper hand. Liz shows Ted a photograph of a woman who has been decapitated and demands to know what happened to her head. Ted, without saying a word, writes the word ‘HACKSAW’ on the dirty glass wall between them. This is when we are shown, for the first and only time, Ted undeniably committing murder. It is presented coldly, as it would be in a documentary, and though it is deeply disturbing to see this from Liz’s perspective, it is also validating for her. The guilt that he has been placing on her for years is finally lifted. The guilt of loving a man who could hurt other women, the guilt of being lucky enough to have not been subjected to that same fate, even the potential love of being wrong about him. Ted held that over Liz for years and years, so the weight that is lifted is felt tangibly by the audience. Although it is clear that Ted will continue to perform innocence until his ultimate confession, Liz receives the clarity that she always deserved.
Following this scene, we are shown a list of names. These are the names of every known victim of Bundy’s. Much of the film is spent taking liberties with the ironies of this disturbing series of events, but it’s this ending that reveals Berlinger’s fine-tuned sensitivity to the aspects of this story that had been ignored for such a long period of time. These aspects were not undocumented, but especially coming from Berlinger – an experienced student of American true crime – it denotes an important shift in the culture that this story is being retold in a way that feels clear-eyed and cautionary. Because these dangers have not disappeared: there are still threatening men exploiting their privilege and appearances to hide among us, including among the media we frequently consume. Luckily, though, while experimenting with fiction and non-fiction in order to quite plainly demonstrate the systems that allowed Bundy’s story to play out precisely the way it did, Berlinger met us halfway, making both experiments – his biopic and his documentary series – available on the same streaming platform for anyone who’s willing to receive his warning.