Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
The absolute worst thing about Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, is its absolutely terrible title. I understand these are descriptions given about the film’s main subject Ted Bundy (misogynistic serial killer, and the focal point of the first televised murder trial in American history). However, this title is bloated, it barely rolls off the tongue, and it seems a little too similar to another recent-enough film (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). It’s as if this film wanted to be given a bad impression before it all began. With the lukewarm reception, peculiar casting choices, and this mouthful of a title (Vile will suffice for the rest of the article), it all seemed doomed from the start.
And so the beginning was doomed. Vile kind of skips around its subject matter a little too carelessly. Director Joe Berlinger is no stranger to the topic of Ted Bundy; he just released the docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (also a long title, but much less clumsy), also through Netflix. Berlinger has also made a various amount of other works based on real crimes and trials (particularly around the West Memphis Three). Maybe the Bundy docuseries and narrative film were meant to go hand-in-hand. Either way, the beginning of the film plays almost like a story Berlinger expects you to know inside and out, the way he does. You may, but you probably don’t. We know Ted Bundy is an awful monster. Maybe some of us grew up with the televised trial. That’s about all we know. The film also tries to play off Bundy as a possibly innocent person, as if to trick the audience. Chances are most people tuning in know who Ted Bundy is, so that also kind of falls flat.
That was it. I knew this was a subpar film. It had to be. Yet, something kept me intrigued. Perhaps I don’t like to end a film prematurely. There was something there. The film slowly allowing you to digest information. The true selling point of Elizabeth (Bundy’s former lover) being affected by all of this. The focus on the actual trial, and Bundy’s ability to swoon strangers. It all suddenly started to click. Zac Efron —dare I say it— nails Bundy’s surface-level exuberance and deeply embedded narcissism and psychoses. Lily Collins also does a great job at being Bundy’s most silent murder attempt: the slow suffocation of a loved one whose guilt is making it impossible to live. Even the minor actors had some surprising turns: a just-the-right-level-of-ruthless Jim Parsons, a charismatically stern John Malkovich, and even a brief appearance by Metallica vocalist and guitarist James Hetfield, who should dabble in this field more often, as far as I’m concerned.
Seeing Bundy go on, and Elizabeth Kendall wither away is where the film really begins to hit hard. There’s no romanticized reminiscing, here. This is a real mental dilemma: can this man be guilty of these crimes, if I love him so much? Who are my decisions best for? Me, or him? Even with the major twist (that undereducated people on the subject matter, like myself) gives Vile the kind of spin it needed: a moral conflict within a scenario no one should be wrapped up in.
Vile could have been even better. Some breathing room at the start of the film (to encourage the beginning of Elizabeth’s relationship with Bundy, as to see the promise she saw) would have been nice; either that, or lop the beginning off entirely, and begin when trouble hits paradise. The need to do both so quickly just doesn’t work. Even more focus on Elizabeth’s everyday life being affected could have been a benefit, too; we only get a sense of how hard this has been, through Collins’ difficult task of giving us everything in such a small window (outside of the eruptive climax). Otherwise, Vile is much less of a chore than 2019’s worst-title-of-the-year would lead you to believe. It is a drive with some occasional potholes: once you do a mental check and realize the car is still good, it’s clear sailing from here. Maybe I’m missing a glaring issue that other critics picked up on, but, to me, Vile is not aiming for shocks, overloaded grit, or exploitation. It felt like an interesting take on how the evils of a loved one can slowly disintegrate a partner, and it’s quite effective when it works out.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.