Back in my 2011 review of Garry Marshall’s slog-fest New Year’s Eve, I bemoaned how little of the film made any sense, including the fact that Zac Efron turned in one of the better performances among a cast including Oscar winners/nominees Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, John Lithgow, and Hilary Swank.
In the eight years since, Efron has made his share of questionable choices (Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, the god-awful Neighbors sequel, Baywatch), but his talent has never wavered, and it reaches its zenith (at least so far) in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, director Joe Berlinger’s solid biopic of Ted Bundy.
Though told mostly through the eyes of Bundy’s girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), Extremely Wicked is first and foremost a vehicle for Efron. Beyond bearing more than a passing resemblance to the notorious killer, Efron is stunning in the role, having watched hours of tape of Bundy to master everything from speech patterns to mannerisms. This isn’t just a two-bit impression, however, Efron embodies Bundy and proves to be deftly capable of going from bright and charming to pitch-black dark in the blink of an eye.
After a haunting prologue set just hours before Bundy’s 1989 execution, Extremely Wicked jumps back twenty years prior, when Bundy first meets Kendall in a Seattle bar. The pair hit it off instantly, with Bundy also accepting Kendall’s young daughter and eventually becoming a father figure to her. Throughout it all, though, as we all know, Bundy was smack in the middle of one the most horrific (and prolific) murder sprees in U.S. history.
Berlinger, however, doesn’t show any of the crimes or even a hint of violence until a brief scene near the end, forcing the audience to see Bundy as Kendall did—a charming and convincing man who repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, even in the face of multiple trials, convictions and extended jail terms. In fact, there’s nothing even remotely wicked, evil, or vile about Bundy as he’s portrayed on screen here. Berlinger relies solely on our historical knowledge of the man and his crimes, and that, in turn, is what makes the film so unnervingly tense and ultimately hideous (the subject matter, not the film itself).
In press tours Berlinger has stated he wanted Efron for the role precisely to poke a hole in the actor’s teen heartthrob, High School Musical image and to juxtapose it with Bundy’s own charm and good looks. Mission accomplished. It’s doubtful anyone will ever look at Efron and see Troy Bolton anymore. Instead what they’ll now see is one of the more underrated actors at work today—a high-level performer who channeled Ted Bundy and came out even better on the other side.