Back in January, Netflix released their documentary on Ted Bundy, Conversations with a Killer. Director Joe Berlinger described Bundy's crimes while examining the feminine fascination with him as the nice guy with serial killer tendencies, thus fetishizing the murderer through discussion of his attractiveness. But Berlinger wasn't done with Bundy ⏤ not by a long shot. Now, he's taken the same material laid out in his documentary and presented a near two-hour reenactment with an A-list actor to remind you that Bundy was bad... but he's just "so dreamy."
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile suffers from a lot of problems, both on a technical level and as an entry in the true crime genre. But its worst offenses are based on the misguided belief that this is a movie about someone other than Ted Bundy.
The narrative opens with the introduction of Lily Collins' Liz Kendall (Kloepfer in reality), Bundy's long-time girlfriend, the woman who is presumably the subject of the movie. She's pretty and shy, afraid that she'll never find a man who wants all the baggage of dating a single mother with a dead-end job. When she meets the man we know as Ted Bundy, she's over the moon that he doesn't run away when he meets her babysitter.
The idea of a woman coming to the shocking discovery that her boyfriend is a serial killer is a real one and is at the heart of Berlinger's own documentary. Women were actively calling in with tips, fearing that their boyfriends or husbands were murdering women with the unspoken question being "what gave them that indication?" With conversations about the Nice Guy and the micro-aggressions that underlie violence committed by men in our society, are the odds of someone dating a future Ted Bundy higher?
Unfortunately Berlinger comes off as more fascinated in his leading man, trotting out the theory that Extremely Wicked is in service to its heroines when it's all a farce. This is the equivalent of a male screenwriter asking for a pat on the back because he turned a male character into a female. The problem lies in turning Liz, and all the women in Bundy's orbit, into mooney-eyed Manson girl rip-offs.
The Manson girl is an attractive trope, particularly for male writers. It's an image of dead-eyed, lank-haired brunettes who are willing to kill for a guy who wasn't particularly attractive. There's something compelling there, but too often the women are set dressing to vaunt up Manson's supposedly attractive qualities. These beautiful women of privilege were willing to kill! This guy must have something. It's almost Freudian watching a movie where Manson's gorgeous harem is out for blood, and more often than not movies about Manson create orgy-like communes where Manson benefits, both psychologically and sexually.
In Berlinger's case, Extremely Wicked makes an assertion that Bundy is a take on Manson. We watch poor Liz, when the movie deigns to focus on her around the second and third acts, becoming obsessively compelled to watch his trial and take his calls. At one point she breaks down and feels guilty for calling the cops on him ⏤ a scene the movie shows in an 11th-hour flashback with no history on why she'd call or her thoughts in that moment. Yet, she can't have a relationship with a new beau because she feels owned and controlled by Ted. The only other woman who provides contrast to Liz is Carole Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario), a squeaky Fromme-esque figure literally in love with Bundy, who later marries him and bears his only child.
It's worth comparing how Extremely Wicked uses the Manson girl's conceit and how it holds up against an actual Manson movie ⏤ in this case we are talking about Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner's upcoming Charlie Says. The Netflix feature actually follows Manson acolyte Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray) as she navigates her increasingly fraught living situation in Spahn Ranch with Manson (Matt Smith) and the other women. Perhaps because this film is written and directed by women, coupled with a clear focus on who the subject is, the frame is always on the female characters. Even when Smith's Manson is around, he is diminished in the frame unless the story is showcasing his dominance and control. Compare this to Extremely Wicked, where emotional scenes like Liz dumping Ted has the camera on Ted's face as he starts to cry rather than focusing on the woman who is presumably the subject!
Furthermore, Charlie Says always focuses on the inner conflict of the women, whether that's through dialogue or camera usage. In contrast, tone is a big issue in Extremely Wicked and there's something off about watching Liz wake up, believing Ted has absconded with her child only for the two to giggle over him making breakfast. Oh, that, Ted! The movie plays Liz's concerns off as paranoia, but never gives her enough dialogue to discuss where her hesitations and fears come from. The only scenes which give us glimpses into her thoughts involve Liz's sadness and guilt over dumping a man who, once again, is a serial killer!
Outside of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile's cinematic failures, it's just boring watching another man deify a murderer. Yes, the movie eschews showing Bundy's crimes but it uses the absence of psychical violence to emphasize the mental violence perpetrated on its leading lady. (And gorehounds, don't worry, we get an incredibly graphic shot of a decapitated nude woman.) The problem is Collins isn't the focus, so we're just watching a mentally fragile woman be gaslit and controlled for two-hours in service of depicting how charismatic and charming Bundy himself was. You know, the usual.
In films, the Manson girl trope is overdone by male screenwriters, but what's more infuriating is Bundy was not a Manson figure. He had no overarching philosophy. He never started a cult. He was a horrible human being, yet the script wants to make him more grandiose. Manson is not a monolith whose crimes are part and parcel of every male killer, yet the movie perceives it as such. And, conversely, it sees every woman in a relationship with a killer as a Manson girl. If that's the case, these stories need to be told by women, a la Charlie Says. If anything, it's time to do something more than tell us a story about a smiling serial killer and the women who wanted him.