Is Extremely Wicked’s framing of Ted Bundy problematic?

Yesterday, Netflix released its Ted Bundy biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil & Vile. The film chronicle’s the life of Ted Bundy from about 1969 until his execution in 1989. The movie’s lead is played by Zac Efron, who does a phenomenal job in the role. It is hard to think of Efron as anything more than the High School Musical kid, but he has gracefully shed both his Disney stigma and the raunchy comedy path he started down to achieve the former. The film itself, however, takes a very strange approach to story of Bundy. It almost seemed like he was the protagonist for most of the film. Whether they purposely attempted to make him seem sympathetic or Efron was just as convincing a manipulator as the real life killer is uncertain.

I won’t put a spoiler warning here because most people know what Ted Bundy did. The film, however, beats around the bush when painting him as a villain. Most of the film focuses on his charm and deep love for his girlfriend, Liz. It then continues to give you candid and personal moments of Bundy where he is acting like he is truly an innocent man being framed. They expand on his need for love and affection from people around him and the way that he reacts with the police is so genuine seeming. Every once in a while they give a second madness in his eyes, but for the most part they keep his presentation rather spotless. Even in the moments that the killings happened, they opt out of showing him doing anything incriminating. Instead, we get looks of despair and desperation when cops are closing in on him.

The film goes into how he wishes Liz and Molly, her daughter, don’t lose hope and hold onto faith that he will be out. He makes references to the novel Papillon about an innocent man convicted of heinous crimes. There’s even a scene where he breaks down crying while holding a picture Molly draws him that he hangs up on the roof of his cell. The film shows Bundy’s two custody escapes. The first is committed by leaping from a courthouse window that he had access to because, as part of his own defense, he was allowed to access an office library. His frequent calls to Liz are made to seem like a man with all hope lost, wishing his love would stay by his side as he faces overwhelming obstacles. The second escape through the jail vents leads to his final capture in Florida.

The cast is quite adequate. Zac Efron is definitely the show stealer. I think the fact that Ted looks so empathic in this film is the performance that he gives. The interview recreations are insanely well acted. While Efron plays Bundy a touch more charismatic than in real, it lends to the angle the film takes. It is important to display how his charasma led to fans and fame, which in turn led to arrogance and self-sabotage in the courtroom. Lily Collins plays Liz, the object of Bundy’s love. She does a firm job of depicting the downward spiral of her life as everything she knew for several years has all been a lie. Kaya Scodelario plays Ted Bundy’s loyal and dedicated stalker turned support leader. She has one of the most convincing performances of the supporting cast. The Florida prosecutor in Bundy’s last trial was played by Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory). John Malkovich, returning to yet another Netflix original film, portrays the Florida judge ruling on the case.

The film’s third act eases up on the sympathy for Bundy as the final trial comes into focus. It shines a light, however, on how arrogant and misguided Bundy was during the trial itself. Efron had a couple speeches and court outbursts lifted for the televised trial that he really swung for the fences on. Even I started to side with him on some decisions, and I know absolutely nothing about the legal process. That should be a red flag. This act of the film, for the first time, starts to show the damage of Bundy’s lies and deception through the struggle of Liz and her new boyfriend played by a very subtle and strong acting Haley Joel Osment. Despite all he has done, Liz still feels something for Ted. His manipulative claws run deep into her soul. Even to the moment before the verdict we see a smiling Ted looking to an optimistic future with a child. Again, I know people will call me dumb and say he lacked emotion and pulled people’s strings. However, it seems like a problematic route being that the characters are based on real life people. I am a fan of a TV show called Dexter. The show’s very nature is designed for you to sympathize with and root for a serial killer; the show is fictional, though. I have to assume that the way American Crime Story: The People V. OJ Simpson rubbed the family of actual victims the wrong way, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil & Vile will do just the same.

The one time we get to see the evil side of Bundy in the entire film is his final visit from Liz. He holds his ground and continues to say he is innocent. Liz pulls out pictures of a victim with a severed head and asks what happened to the woman’s head. After denying it a few times, Liz screams for Bundy to “release” her from this mental and emotional turmoil by admitting it so she can move on. With tears in his eyes, Bundy quietly writes “hacksaw” in the fogged glass between them. The film even cuts to a shot of Bundy beating the woman with a crowbar and beginning to grab the saw to dismember her. I felt some relief at this point. Finally they paint him as the definite monster he was, rather than leaving this lingering question of guilt about him. However, after some short research I found that all Bundy said to Liz in real life was that there was “something the matter” with him and he “just couldn’t contain it.” Not only did Bundy never admit guilt, he definitely didn’t tell her how a certain murder was done. It just feels peculiar that the one moment they chose to show his vile nature was one of complete fiction.

As a total package, the movie is a rather interesting look at a very bizarre court trial filled with lawyers on the same side fighting, marriage proposals on the stand, and a real life serial killer playing his lead defense. I’d say it is worth the watch for that fact, as well as Zac Efron’s wonderful performance. It may not be a home run of a film, but it is definitely something that I have never seen in a killer or courtroom based movie.

Is it irresponsible to paint a real life killer in a sympathetic light? Do you think it was just meant to mirror his actual manipulative character?

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