Sundance Critics Love Zac Efron More Than His Ted Bundy Film

Jan 28, 2019

Former High School Musical star Zac Efron won rave reviews for the Sundance premiere of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile  but critics weren't that impressed with the film about serial killer Ted Bundy shot mostly in Northern Kentucky a year ago.

"It’s a star vehicle that starts and ends with its star, the film around him struggling to justify its existence. Efron is wicked, the film less so," says Benjamin Lee for The Guardian, who gave the film three of five stars.

"Efron is pretty pitch perfect here, delivering the best performance of his career thus far," says Adam Chitwood of Collider, who gave the film a B-.

Here is the trailer

David Fear of Rolling Stone praised the casting of the former Disney heartthrob as the 1970s serial killer, kidnapper, rapist, thief and prison escapee — while expressing his disappointment with director Joe Berlinger's overall product. Hiring Efron is "something that’s solid gold in conception and leaves something to be desired in the execution (pun unintended) — which is a pretty good way to describe the movie as a whole. A colleague referred to it as 'Bohemian Rhapsody for mass murderers' as folks exited the early morning Sundance screening, which is a harsh indictment. It’s not quite that bad. But it’s not what you’d call traditionally 'good' either."

Berlinger tells the story through the eyes of Bundy's longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins from To The Bone, Rules Don't Apply), called Liz Kendall in the film. Because she didn't witness his crimes – which led to his conviction and electric chair execution in 1989 – the film doesn't show his deadly encounters with women. Berlinger does faithfully re-create trial scenes in which Bundy was his own attorney, which were filmed in Northern Kentucky with Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) as prosecutor Larry Simpson and John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich, In The Line Of Fire, Places In The Heart) as Judge Edward D. Cowart.

Here's what reviewers wrote after Saturday's premiere at Sundance:

Zac Efron and Jim Parsons filming a courtroom scene in Northern Kentucky in February 2018.
Credit Courtesy Brian Douglas

Owen Gleiberman, Variety: "So how is Zac Efron as Bundy? I think he’s startlingly good: controlled, magnetic, audacious, committed, and eerily right … He uses his insidious charisma to grab us from the start, when Ted, haunting a college bar in Seattle in 1969, meets Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), the single mom who will become his romantic and domestic partner throughout the years of his crimes…

"The dramatic engine of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil is Ted’s insistence, right up until the final minutes of the movie, that he is innocent. It’s as if he took a page from the book of some of our sleazier and more sociopathic politicians: Deny, deny, deny…

"Extremely Wicked doesn’t rub our noses in the horror of Ted Bundy. It shows us just enough, keeping the horror where it belongs, in the recesses of our imagination, where it remains what it should be: dark as midnight, and altogether too much to fathom.

Emily Tannenbaum, Cosmo: "Was EWSEAV a great movie? No. Besides the riveting and bonkers court proceedings, which are public record, the script felt weak and without the sort of gripping tension one might expect. However, it was also one of, if not the most, tasteful and respectful films on this type of subject I've seen. In the end, it was a film about the victims: including Kloepfer. There were no graphic murders or sexualization of his crimes. Bundy was just as the title suggests: evil and vile. For that, Efron has a reason to be proud."

Efron talking to director Joe Berlinger between scenes.
Credit Courtesy Brian Douglas

Benjamin Lee, The Guardian: "The most shocking thing about the film is Efron’s remarkably accomplished, fiercely committed performance. As Bundy, he ruthlessly weaponizes the boyish charm that’s propelled much of his career, slyly convincing us of the spell he cast, not only on Liz but the many other women who were fighting his corner, sure of his innocence. It’s the career-changing moment he was clearly seeking…

"Despite being centered on Bundy’s longtime partner, her on-screen incarnation is stuck in a rather repetitive and incredibly limiting cycle of worrying and drinking… She’s reduced to a stock character, which makes the choice to pull focus away from the gory details of Bundy’s crimes feel all the more bizarre…

"It’s a star vehicle that starts and ends with its star, the film around him struggling to justify its existence. Efron is wicked, the film less so."

John Malkovich plays a judge in the film.
Credit Courtesy Brian Douglas

Adam Chitwood, Collider: "Efron is pretty pitch perfect here, delivering the best performance of his career thus far. He imbues Bundy with an undeniable charm and likability, but never tipping the scales into glorifying the man. What's brilliant about Efron's performance is how he subtly lets the audience in on the façade that Bundy is putting up… Bundy's outlandish attempts to keep Elizabeth on his side and later to win his trial while defending himself come off as desperate attempts to wiggle free, not endearing quirks as some may have feared…

"The crimes of Ted Bundy remain fascinating all these years later in part because he's such a confounding man. Obviously nothing can compare to the pain inflicted on the families of his victims, but Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile offers unique insight into how the inhuman actions of a monster impact his own loved ones. And how we as humans will go to great lengths to ignore or explain away the actions of those we love. Because after all, if the person we love is a monster, what does that make us?"

Carlos Agular, The Wrap: "Efron is savagely convincing in the most psychologically-layered performance of his career … This is Efron's show, with all elements gravitating towards him for better or worse. Despite the inherent flaws in (writer Michael) Werwie's script, Extremely Wicked winds up a thought-provoking piece of cinema that avoids the easy temptation of shock value in favor of a more philosophical take on a diabolical murderer."

David Fear, Rolling Stone: "This is the film's casting coup, getting the sexy movie star to play the sexy killer. It's something that's solid gold in conception and leaves something to be desired in the execution (pun unintended) — which is a pretty good way to describe the movie as a whole. A colleague referred to it as 'Bohemian Rhapsody for mass murderers' as folks exited the early morning Sundance screening, which is a harsh indictment. It's not quite that bad. But it's not what you'd call traditionally 'good' either…

"Thankfully, Berlinger only recreates one of the serial killer's murders, waiting for a key exchange between Bundy and Kloepfer at the end to give you a taste of his degeneracy ... Otherwise, you're left to kill time counting the celebrity cameos (if you didn't already know Metallica's James Hetfield plays a cop, you might miss his brief appearance entirely) and admiring how faithfully they staged press conferences, courtroom outbursts et al…"

Emily Yoshida, Vulture: "The narrative feature from veteran documentarian Joe Berlinger seems as though it's setting out to be the story of serial killer Ted Bundy told through the eyes of his girlfriend, Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins)… But Berlinger's film gets sucked into the gravity of sensational events that are already a matter of public record, and spends so much time meticulously recreating them that the perspective is diluted. It isn't long before the film seems to lose any perspective at all…

"We don't see those killings — nor do we see any scenes of violence until the film's final minutes — ostensibly because Liz didn't witness them; that was not the Ted she knew. But muddying this considerably is the fact that the film later acknowledges that Liz herself named Bundy to the police when a police sketch and description went out for the suspect in the 1974 Lake Sammamish kidnappings. If Liz suspected her live-in boyfriend that early on of a violent crime, why did she stay with him? What was that like? Extremely Wicked misses out on some of the most important beats of its supposed premise by skipping over this chapter entirely."

Rotten Tomatoes has more snippets from reviews here.