Berlinger: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)
Ted Bundy’s hold on the popular imagination stems in large part from his relationship with Ann Rule, and her discussion of his trial and conviction in The Stranger Beside Me. However, the latest Bundy film is based on Elizabeth Kendall’s memoir, The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy, which describes her marriage to Bundy, and her gradual suspicion that he might be a serial killer. Ann Rule is nowhere to be seen in this version of events, which often seems to be defining itself against her vision of Bundy’s life and crimes in The Stranger Beside Me. Whereas Rule focused in minute detail on each of Bundy’s victims, and the circumstances surrounding their disappearance, Extremely Wicked more or less discards the first half of Bundy’s career, starting with his first conviction in Utah in 1975. While the dim Netflix palette suits Seattle in the few scenes that take place there, director Joe Berlinger is far less invested in the Pacific Northwest than Rule, choosing to focus instead on Bundy’s sprawl through the Midwest, Florida, and into the most recent wave of true crime fandom.
More specifically, Rule was fascinated with the spaces where Bundy’s victims vanished, and the time that elapsed between their last known sightings and the discovery of their bodies. These blind spots formed a way of thinking through the blind spots in her own friendship with Bundy, and the gaps between her personal knowledge of him, and her professional knowledge of his criminological history. Much of The Stranger Beside Me plays as two discrete narratives, one about Bundy “the man,” and one about the unnamed serial killer who would “become” Bundy, but who Rule is never quite able to reconcile with the person that she knew. Just as the fissures and apora in Rule’s account make The Stranger Beside Me a remarkably suspenseful read, so Extremely Wicked is largely disinterested in suspsense, often going out of its way to flatten and undercut the most notoriously suspenseful scenes in Bundy’s career. Whereas Rule is fixated on the covert spaces where Bundy “became” evil, Extremely Wicked isn’t really invested in this kind of psychological or criminological approach, instead focusing on the cult status Bundy has accrued over the intervening years.
The release of the film was itself marketed as a true crime event on Netflix, where is is paired with Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which retells the Bundy store with a wealth of new archival material, much of it from Bundy’s own mouth. In effect, The Bundy Tapes, which reprise Bundy’s career from start to finish, remove the narrative burden from Extremely Wicked, especially since both releases have been synced on Netflix, meaning that one starts playing immediately as soon as the other finishes. Both releases, too, are directed by veteran crime documentarian Joe Berlinger, meaning that they are effectively a sustained piece of work, even if both provide a new kind of “access” to Bundy’s mind and motivations. In the case of The Ted Bundy Tapes, this access depends upon the new archival material that has been released, and the frisson of hearing Bundy talk in his own words about his crimes. However, Extremely Wicked is considerably more complex in the access that it offers to Bundy, since it also plays as a documentary, with the dramatic exception of Zac Efron’s performance as Bundy, easily the most hyped dimension of this double release.
To some extent, the contrast between the documentary overtones of Extremely Wicked, and Efron’s bid for a new kind of cinematic credibility, make it a jarring watch. Yet the two end up syncing together quite elegantly, as Berlinger gradually suggests that the only way to properly document Bundy’s star image is through precisely the self-consciously cinematic performance that Efron provides. In that sense, Extremely Wicked differs from The Bundy Tapes by more or less discarding the question of Bundy’s psychology, and instead focusing on his star image – the swagger, charisma and magnetic gaze that has allowed him to command popular culture more than any other American serial killer to date. This is a perfect role for Efron, if only because he exudes a sensuous immediacy that always exceeds the specific role he is playing – a sensuous excess that is presented here, by Berlinger, as the closest we can come to recreating, or documenting, the intense sway that Bundy held over the American media at the time. Since this charismatic performance peaked during his trial, it makes sense that Extremely Wicked is largely invested in this final part of Bundy’s career, and equally disinterested in the earlier anonymity that haunts so much of Rule’s treatment.
Much of Extremely Wicked thus taps into and enacts the insatiable rhythm of the news cycle, full of lingering gazes in which one adoring woman or reporter reflects Bundy’s charismatic command back to him. For large parts of the film, this account of Bundy almost plays as a romance, so it’s appropriate that the main interlocutor is Liz, Bundy’s wife. In her memoir, Kendall recalls a number of “clues” that Bundy was the killer – his car, his knife, the times he was away from home – but here those clues are largely irrelevant, as Berlinger instead focuses upon the brief glimpses of psychopathy she experienced during the steamiest moments in their marriage, turning Extremely Close into a kind of latter-day erotic thriller. In one of the most sensuously charged scenes, Liz remembers a moment in the bedroom when Bundy’s gaze shifted subliminally from regarding her as a wife to regarding her as a potential victim, before Berlinger cuts to Bundy having intercourse with his new wife in jail, in a scene that enhances the contours of Efron’s musculature for the first and only time in the film. As these two scenes suggest, Berlinger eroticises Bundy’s gaze for much of the film, suggesting that the pathology of his desire meant that being desired by him, and being spared in the midst of his desire, became a fandom fantasy during his trial.
In the process, Berlinger crafts a film around the picaresque momentum of Bundy’s star image across American culture, framing Bundy himself as a media event – “the first nationally televised trial in history” – in ways that often recall American Crime Story. Rather than developing or devolving in any naturalistic way, Bundy here is continually accelerating to stay one step ahead of the law, one step ahead of his own actions and, finally, one step ahead of his own star image, always trying to figure out the next best way to make himself amenable to the jurors, public and media. In that sense, Extremely Wicked is more interested in Bundy the fugitive, or Bundy the escape artist, than Bundy the serial killer, spending its first half on Bundy’s two prison breakouts, and its second half on his increasingly ingenious and insane attempts to break out of the trial by acting as his own counsel. Since Bundy is continually in flight, the film is often most compelling when it depicts him through montage – and it nearly always reverts back to montage whenever the screenplay is at risk of settling too deeply into a psychological or criminological framework.
These montage sequences tend to depict Bundy as a countercultural figure, Bonnie and Clyde in one, especially since his crimes are also dealt with in a fairly cursory way, typically through impressionistic recreations or fleeting allusions. That’s not to say that Extremely Wicked represses Bundy’s crimes, exactly, but that it assumes an audience that is both au fait with his crimes, and has absorbed the import of those crimes into the cult fascination that Berlinger’s approach addresses. Indeed, so keen is Berlinger to avoid this criminological approach, and the accompanying suspense of Rule’s vision, that even the narrative lynchpins of Extremely Close are programmatically divested of suspense, giving the film a strange bathetic and anticlimactic quality, especially when set alongside Efron’s larger-than-life performance. While the screenplay seems to be moving towards Bundy’s second prison escape and the Florida sorority murders as its climactic spectacles, both of these episodes are over before they have begun. There’s no interest in the minutiae of the second prison escape, despite the fact that this is still one of the most ingenious one-man prison escapes in American history, while the sorority murders are condensed – almost comically – to a very brief scene in which Bundy meets some of the sorority sisters at a Florida nightclub, followed by a broadcast that just as briefly details the discovery of the bodies the next day.
While Extremely Wicked might be interested in Bundy’s media malleability, then, it’s comparatively disinterested in his ingenuity and intelligence, since it’s impossible to discuss these two attributes without also discussing the scope and range of his crimes in more detail than Berlinger’s film is prepared to concede. Instead, Bundy is presented here as a showman, rather than a intellectual, just as his crimes are less the product of a deranged genius than a form of countercultural cred, a way of sticking it to the system. That’s not to say that Berlinger discounts Bundy’s derangement, however, but that his psychopathy becomes a question of breaking character rather than revealing depravity. In the eeriest touch of the film, Bundy mostly hears about his crimes from other people, and from the prosecutor, dissociating himself enough from the acts he has committed to be able to digest them as if he is learning about them for the first time. The most enduring moments in Extremely Wicked follow Bundy as he comes to face to face with his fantasy of himself, collapsing himself further into this fantasy in response, rather than starting to “break down” in the way that Rule imagines as the culmination of her own fantasy of what Bundy entails.
Whereas other accounts of Bundy focus on his psychosexual proclivities, narcissism is the dominant psychopathic trait in Berlinger’s account, which thereby manages to introduce a new eeriness into the representation of Bundy – an eeriness that doesn’t stem from the “disconnect” between his civilised exterior and the crimes he committed, or even from the crimes themselves, but instead depends upon the sheer conviction and charismatic swagger with which he maintains his innocence right up until the end. Here, Bundy’s psychopathy is a forerunner of contemporary public relations, permitting him to dissociate himself from the most horrendous of actions, and to believe in the dissociation even as he is crafting it to fit each new audience and situation. Rather than presenting Bundy as the “articulate” psychopath, Berlinger instead hones in on Bundy’s ability to obfuscate the truth under the guise of presenting additional clarity, culminating with his response to his eventual conviction: “It is not a sentence of me – it is a sentence of someone else, not standing here today.” This sentence itself is Bundy’s real legacy, as the film presents it, foreshadowing a world in which psychopathy and public relations have converged on exactly the kind of language on display here – convinced, above all else, of its ability to manipulate, massage and micro-manage the media into promulgating whatever message it happens to require.
The final note of Extremely Wicked is therefore an unsettling one for true crime fans, asking us to question how the cult of Bundy might make us complicit in precisely the corporatization of violence, and the reduction of crime to an exercise in public relations, that true crime media so often sets out to define itself against. As the montage accelerates frantically in the later stages of the film, Bundy seems to be projecting his star image ahead of any trial outcome, reaching out to make contact with the cult status that would subsist after his death, and guarantee him an afterlife in American culture despite the death penalty. By making that star image the subject of his film, Berlinger both confirms and challenges Bundy’s confidence in his own longevity, asking the audience to think about what other kinds of continuities might be bound up with Bundy’s resilience into the present day. The result is less a representation of Bundy than an embodiment and extension of his star image into Efron’s own, just as as Efron doesn’t exactly “play” Bundy so much as reveal Bundy as an essential but unspoken component of the very idea of star image as it circulates in American culture. Bundy thus feels more present and more remote here than in any previous treatment, allowing Berlinger to offset the illusory immediacy of The Bundy Tapes with a more ambivalent immersion in one of the most resilient of American true crime cults.
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