Same Old Song And Dance: Telling Killers’ Stories

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A look at Joe Berlinger's Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile by Alison LanierI am very tired of serial killer movies. What is it about serial killers? There’s a mystique that comes with that level of violence, danger, and evil. We know the names Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, and we live in a world saturated with media devoted to them. In January, we got Joe Berlinger’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes from Netflix, a documentary recounting in Bundy’s own recorded voice the twists and turns of his crimes, capture, and conviction. Before the year is out we’ll have three—count ‘em, three—more movies about Charles Manson, including the new star-studded movie from Tarantino Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Scorsese is at least going to have a hand in producing the H.H. Holmes Hulu series, Devil in the White City, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. And this past week, we got another Joe Berlinger-directed, Bundy-centric Netflix project: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile.

The movie does a stunning job of setting its cast in the atmosphere of the time. With no small help from Conversations with a Killer, viewers are well aware of how Bundy spoke and moved, how he deployed charm or failed to. Zac Efron might seem like a fairly absurd casting choice, but on the screen, it works: Efron has clear, trustworthy good looks that make Bundy’s interactions convincing, even as we know what’s going on behind the scenes. Efron doesn’t cut corners with his performance. Everything from the tilt of the head to the cadence of speech is right there. Filmmakers lace in flourishes of real news footage surrounding the crimes. It’s all meant to feel very real—not just based on a true story but playing out the true story itself with a documentary-like conviction.

The movie itself is ostensibly about Bundy’s longtime girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins). And there the story stumbles. Collins is largely absent. I’d estimate she is on screen for roughly a quarter of the total runtime. She’s our first point-of-view character, as the film opens on her budding relationship with Bundy, the handsome family man, the intense and adoring romantic partner. The intensity of their connection is convincing…and then it vanishes. Barely half an hour in, Liz is essentially absent from the narrative as Bundy retraces the territory covered in Conversations. We catch glimpses of her, going to pieces as she watches her ex-lover on TV, or getting intrusive phone calls and visits from investigators eager to find out what she knows. But by its mid point, she’s more of a plot device than a character as the movie becomes soundly about Bundy.

The filmmakers say they didn’t intend to make Bundy sympathetic. But the effect of putting us in his POV for most of the movie is just the opposite. Additionally the movie doesn’t show the murders themselves—a very good move—but the fact that we never see Bundy being violent, only wholeheartedly denying it, doesn’t make him any less of a sympathetic character. In the end Collins appears like an afterthought, a frame story for a narrative that could have proceeded just as confidently without her.

And so goes a rare movie that promised us a serial killer without the killer’s emotional life as its focus. Personally the concept of the movie appealed to me: instead of disposable victims, women become the window onto the story. The ones who matter. The ones who survive and endure and grow from something too strange and terrible to ever see coming. But that’s not the movie we got. We got a female character used as justification to re-incarnate Bundy’s story with excruciating detail.

I’m not hoping for any better from Tarantino’s Manson movie.  The infamously misogynistic auteur isn’t my first choice to show something other than straight-up, gratuitous violence against women. Similarly, The Haunting of Sharon Tate, in which Hilary Duff plays the doomed actress having nightmarish premonitions of her own murder, seems to just be an excuse to show the Manson murders as many times as possible on screen.

No, the only movie I’m holding out hope for is Charlie Says, which—lo and behold—is actually directed by a woman, Mary Harron (the phenomenal director of American Psycho). Charlie Says follows Manson’s female adherents who committed the Tate murders—but picking up after their arrest, when they’re in jail trying to understand what they’ve done and what’s been done to them. Yesterday The New York Times gave it a glowing early review.

It sounds like this is a movie that pulls off what Extremely Wicked promised us: the story of the women caught in the orbit of violence and mayhem, rather than aggrandizing the good-looking white dude stirring up that mayhem and violence. This emotional care is part of what made Wild Wild Country so compelling as a documentary: what you’re shown isn’t gratuitous and it isn’t for shock value, although some of it is shocking. What you’re shown is genuinely meant to foster an emotional understanding. While the element of sensationalism is difficult to entirely do away with in these famous murder stories, I think we have at least a handful of excellent media trying to show us how to tell these stories without only telling the killer’s.

In short, I’d recommend foregoing Netflix’s We-Made-Bundy-Hot movie and waiting for Harron’s project to hit the big screen. Maybe we’ll finally have another woman whose name is called for a directing Oscar—but I don’t want to pin my hopes too high. I mean Tarantino’s making a Manson movie after all.




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About Author

Alison Lanier is a Boston-based writer and editor currently working in communications at MIT. A graduate of Wellesley College, she is part of the editorial team at Mortar Magazine and AGNI as well as at Atticus Review. Her fiction, poetry, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in Ms. Magazine Online, Bust, The Establishment, and elsewhere.

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