There are people who come to Sundance just for the chance to freak out at the sight of a movie star. (“Fan” is the charitable word to describe these folks. “Unpaid paparazzi “ would do the trick, too.) Movie stars, by contrast, sometimes come to the festival to unleash their inner freak—to subvert their public image, to test their range, to premiere a new project that casts them wildly, even disturbingly, against type. Sometimes, these two pursuits can collide in amusing ways.
Last night, for example, a throng of screaming diehards descended upon Park City’s biggest and most glamorous venue, the Eccles Theater, for this year’s hottest Sundance ticket, what one could call an atypical starring vehicle for Zac Efron. The one-time High School Musical star has broken often with his squeaky-clean, teen-heartthrob past; the Neighbors films accomplished that goal nicely, finding comic reservoirs of bitterness and almost sociopathic rage underneath his superhero physique and matinee-idol charisma. Here, though, Efron Nation had gathered to watch him play one of America’s most notorious real-life bogeymen, Ted Bundy, the vicious serial killer and rapist, infamous for decapitating young women and having sex with their headless corpses.
It’s actually pretty perfect casting. Bundy, after all, was a ladykiller in multiple senses of the word: He often used his good looks and charm to get his victims alone, and when he was on trial for multiple murders—the nation’s first nationally televised trial, in fact—those same qualities made him an object of public fascination and even desire. In a sense, then, putting Efron in the role harnesses his star power in a devious, diabolical way; you come for the star, you get the monster lurking underneath. But Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile (Grade: C), documentarian Joe Berlinger’s new narrative portrait of the serial killer, never fully gives us the monster. The film takes a provocatively unintuitive approach to this material: Rather than dramatize Bundy’s heinous crimes, it leaves them almost entirely off screen, and in fact actually unfolds from a position of feigned ignorance, presenting the events as though his guilt were an open question. The ostensible protagonist of the story isn’t Bundy, but his girlfriend, Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), who the film suggests long resisted accepting the truth about him.
Again, that’s a potentially interesting way to tell this story, especially given who’s doing the telling. Berlinger, who also made the much more comprehensive Netflix documentary on Bundy, acknowledged from the stage last night a personal connection to Michael Werwie’s screenplay and its elisions and gaps in information. The director, remember, spent huge stretches of his career on the Paradise Lost advocacy documentaries, which operate under the conviction that the West Memphis Three were innocent, or at least not guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. Given that creative history, Extremely Wicked plays like a kind of nightmare scenario, an exorcism of the director’s worst fears: What if that imprisoned suspect, swearing that they got the wrong guy, was lying the whole time? What if Berlinger, like Kendall, could be seduced by a guilty man?
The angle, sadly, doesn’t really work. It depends, for one, on the audience either knowing nothing about Bundy going in or being willing to play dumb and go along with the thought experiment, humoring the script’s coy tunnel vision. More fatally, Extremely Wicked can’t seem to commit to its ostensibly limited POV. Unfolding over a number of years, Extremely Wicked comes on like it’s adopting Kendall’s perspective—the first scene intercuts a jailhouse visitation and the night she met Bundy at a bar and took him home. But there’s nothing especially dramatic about scenes of Collins’ Liz crying and smoking and handwringing, glued to the salacious details on the TV, locked in a state of denial; her internal wrestling is inherently internal, and hence difficult to dramatize. So the movie keeps leaving her side and returning to Bundy—escaping out the window of a courthouse, bantering with the judge (John Malkovich) of his Florida trial, etc. It made me think of Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, which pretended to be about the artist Margaret Keane, but really reserved its fascination for her con-artist husband, Walter. Berlinger may think he’s taking the non-sensationalized approach by refusing to depict Bundy’s shocking murders. But by only showing us his public face, the tap-dancing charm that made him a media sensation (augmented here by yet another loaded jukebox of sub-Scorsese needle drops), Extremely Wicked risks minimizing his evil.
Efron is very good. If the movie remotely pulls off its perversely un-perverse experiment in withholding, he’s the reason: Never letting the mask slip, keeping Bundy’s darkness concealed just below the surface, Efron really makes you believe that someone could fail to recognize the wolf he kept draped in sheep’s clothing. Maybe it’s just fascinating to see the actor play with the power of his persona and our association with it. Shia LaBeouf, another former child star with a movie here at Sundance, has been doing that for years now. Some of his best performances, in movies like American Honey, Nymphomaniac, and Borg Vs. McEnroe, have leaned into, rather than trying to disguise, his asshole reputation. With Honey Boy (Grade: B-), the actor offers something like an explanation for his bad behavior. Directed by Alma Har’el, from a script by LaBeouf, it’s barely disguised autobiography—a drama about a hotheaded young movie star (Lucas Hedges, Hollywood’s go-to troubled white boy for all seasons) sent after a DUI to rehab, where he starts thinking back on his days as a preteen Disney Channel headliner (A Quiet Place’s Noah Jupe), caught under the supervision of his abusive leech of a father. The movie’s craziest hook, borrowed from Mario Van Peebles’ Baadasssss!: LaBeouf plays the dad—which is to say, his own dad.
As a glorified form of drama therapy, Honey Boy is fascinating: Through every scene between Jupe and LaBeouf—portraying his father as a kind of ne’er-do-well Matthew McConaughey character—we’re getting to see the writer-actor work through his feelings about his troubled childhood, eventually stumbling into a kind of empathy-through-portrayal for the sometimes cruel and pathetic man. Or maybe it’s all just a masquerade; this is a film that acknowledges, rather constantly, how much LaBeouf blurs the line between his personal and professional life, making it impossible for those close to him to know when he’s acting. But if you set aside all that meta baggage, including the uncomfortable realization that both Jupe and Hedges could be on the same destructive path their costar went down, this is actually a fairly conventional indie drama, cursed with a generic ambient soundtrack, jittery-formulaic camerawork, and a useless subplot about a prostitute young Shia, err, “Otis” befriends at the motel where he and his father live during the shooting season. I did, however, quite enjoy Hedges’ unfussy, very spot-on imitation of LaBeouf, first showcased in an opening scene that finds him bellowing a signature “No no no no” on the set of what’s essentially a Transformers sequel.