Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile walks a tricky line. The movie doesn't want to heroize Ted Bundy, the notorious serial killer at the center of the story, so it takes a dispassionate docudrama approach, and is ostensibly told from the perspective of Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins), who was in a relationship with Bundy at the time of his first documented murders (the movie is based on her memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy). But Bundy is played with an abundance of charm by Zac Efron, and the movie is definitely his story more than it's Kloepfer's. It doesn't glorify Bundy, but it doesn't make him a monster, either, and so the movie never settles on a tone or figures out exactly what it's trying to say.
Director Joe Berlinger is primarily a documentary filmmaker (he also directed Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, a Netflix docuseries that serves as a sort of a companion piece to this movie), and he treats Extremely Wicked with a documentarian's eye for detail. During the end credits, archival footage of and about the real Bundy is shown, as if to prove that the unbelievable stuff shown in the movie really happened and to show off the accuracy of the costumes and the dialogue and Efron's mannerisms as Bundy. But seeing Bundy in the archival footage underlines the problem with Efron's performance: Ted Bundy was weird. He was charismatic, but in a dark, twitchy way. Efron plays him with charm but without psychopathic energy. If you didn't know anything about Ted Bundy going in, you might not be 100% convinced he was guilty until the very end, because Efron is so handsome and the women in Bundy's life adore him so. The movie withholds the visceral truth about what Bundy did until the last scene.
There are problems with Kloepfer, too, though they come from the writing, not from Collins' performance. Collins is good; she just doesn't get much to do except drink and cry and wait by the phone for Ted to call. And there's a pivotal twist around a decision she makes, but the reason why she does what she does is bafflingly unexplained. Her story only serves Bundy's story.
Finally, there are problems with casting. John Malkovich is hammy as Judge Edward Cowart, who oversaw Bundy's murder trial in Florida. The real Cowart was hammy — the movie's unwieldy title comes from something he actually said during Bundy's sentencing — but in a Southern gentleman way, not a Malkovich way. It's impossible to buy Malkovich saying "bless your heart." It's also impossible to buy Jim Parsons as the prosecuting attorney. Maybe if you've never watched The Big Bang Theory it won't be a problem, but millions of people will feel like they're watching Sheldon describe a grisly murder. The casting feels gimmicky in a way it shouldn't, especially since so much of the rest of the movie avoids a sensationalistic tone.
Extremely Wicked is supposed to be a movie exploring the relationship between Kloepfer and Bundy, and should have something more to say about why some women love bad men. Instead it's a surprisingly bland Ted Bundy biopic that turns into a courtroom drama. It doesn't have a strong point of view, which makes it feel aimless. Berlinger already made a very compelling documentary about Bundy, so what was the point of making a less compelling documentary-style feature?
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is now streaming on Netflix.