Zac Efron has been underrated as an actor since he shed the High School Musical image for R-rated hijinks nearly a decade ago. Portraying the charming, manipulative side of notorious killer Ted Bundy, Efron delivers his best performance yet in Joe Berlinger’s semi-provocative tale of Bundy’s personal life, specifically his near-marriage to long-time girlfriend Liz (Lily Collins).
Berlinger ought to be commended for not merely presenting a what’s what of Bundy’s murders, however, the “greatest hits” that he employs here in tracking Bundy’s life outside of midnight prowling is a bit reductive. There’s a feeling of missed opportunity with how deep Berlinger and his writers are willing to go in developing Bundy’s connection to Liz or his own personality when acting normal or abnormal. By the same token they barely scratch the surface of Liz Kendall, a single mom swept off her feet by a dark stranger in the night. True stories such as the time Bundy pushed her off a boat or when she nearly became a victim herself via smoke inhalation are skipped over entirely to preserve the false idea that Liz was more or less in the dark until just before the end. Regardless, that empty feeling goes away in the final stretch, when Efron is given room to breathe and Berlinger is no longer skipping through time. When he’s facing trial, Extremely Wicked becomes an eerie tale of Bundy’s unwavering resolve and his uneasy, unspoken alliance with both media and female onlookers. Berlinger is forcing the audience to identify with Bundy, if only briefly, in order to imagine what it was like for people in the late seventies. They saw a good-looking guy with a twinkle in his eye and they fell for his well-to-do madness hook, line, and sinker. The best part of the film is watching how easily Bundy manipulated lawmen at a public decree, or kept up a veneer of innocence and indignant opposition in the face of prison time and eventually death. It’s in these moments when Efron shines greatest, finally given the opportunity to stretch his legs and put his charisma to good use. He may be orders of magnitude more handsome than the real Bundy ever was, but he’s got the eyes, the pair of blue pearls that are capable of beaming one minute and broadcasting vacancy the next.
Extremely Wicked is only provocative in the margins, and otherwise approaches mundanity in how it tells the story of the most prolific serial killer in our nation’s history. Joe Berlinger had the good sense to cast a talent on the rise with as much to prove as Efron, and prove it he does in a chilling turn that could have been award-worthy in a better movie. Bonus points for John Malkovich, because why not?