Joe Berlinger’s four-hour Netflix series about Ted Bundy is called Conversations with a Killer, but its dialogues tend to only run one way. Subtitled “The Ted Bundy Tapes,” the series is built around more than 100 hours of audiotape recordings with the jailed serial killer, recorded by journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth during Bundy’s nine years on death row. But toward the end of the series’ first episode, Michaud admits that despite what seemed to be an enviable get—Bundy was at the time both famous and infamous, the subject of morbid national fascination and the recipient of a steady stream of love letters from smitten admirers—Bundy was initially an uncooperative subject, supplying bland nostrums about his happy childhood in the hopes that Michaud and Aynesworth’s book would turn out to be the equivalent of a “celebrity bio.” The breakthrough only came when Bundy was allowed, in effect, to interview himself, discussing the killer who had murdered at least 30 women, and possibly many times that, in the third person, as if he were someone else entirely.
Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile also approaches Bundy via a roundabout course, although it does so through the lens of fiction. The feature, which premiered at Sundance last week and was just bought by Netflix for $9 million, stars Zac Efron as Bundy and Lily Collins as Liz Kendall, a character based on Elizabeth Kloepfer, a single mother who was Bundy’s unwitting girlfriend during the period when he committed most of his crimes. Efron’s casting raised red flags when it was announced at Cannes last year, but the issue turns out not to be the former teen idol’s physical attractiveness—Bundy was frequently described as good-looking, if not movie-star handsome—so much as Efron’s inability to play more than one thing at a time.
In an interview with Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri, Berlinger said that Michael Werwie’s script originally played more like Catch Me If You Can, a playful ride-along with a charismatic faker who was only revealed to be Bundy late in the game (which sounds like a nifty idea for a Black List script and a terrible idea for an actual movie). In Extremely Wicked, we know we’re looking at Bundy from the beginning, but there’s no hint in Efron’s performance of the monster as which he would be revealed. If you wanted to make a movie about a jovial law student named Ted Bundy who was unfairly accused of the most heinous crimes imaginable, you could reuse 90 percent of the footage without changing a thing. (You never see Bundy in the act, but he does eventually give a vague but chilling confession.)
Many of Berlinger’s documentaries, especially the Paradise Lost trilogy, are built around demonstrating that our collectively received ideas about what criminals look like are fundamentally wrong. Setting those biases aside isn’t easy: Berlinger and his late creative partner Bruce Sinofsky fell into the trap themselves in the second Paradise Lost, identifying the father of a murdered boy as a suspect due to his odd grief-stricken behavior, only to spend a chunk of the third film apologizing for that assumption. And since those assumptions are rooted in images of leering, often nonwhite criminals, fiction can be a powerful tool for rebutting them. One thing Extremely Wicked does well is it illustrates how Bundy was able to escape detection for so long, coasting by on charm and the tacit assumption that a well-spoken white man must be telling the truth. But it also buys into what the documentary reveals to be convenient lies: that Bundy’s childhood was untroubled, that he was a maniacal genius, that no one could have prevented his crimes. That’s not to say there’s an easy moral—that if only this or that warning sign had been heeded, Bundy could have been stopped. But narratives help us sift the meaningful harbingers from the detritus of life. Extremely Wicked discards them entirely.
Conversations with a Killer is the more interesting of the two projects by far, but it butts up against two obstacles. One is Bundy’s dissembling, and his inability, even when he starts to lower the veil, to satisfyingly explain himself. (The closest he comes is describing a “hunger” that he hoped brutally murdering and sexually violating women would fill, but not where it comes from.) The second is the limits of our understanding. In the popular imagination, and in the fictional characters Bundy inspired—especially Hannibal Lecter, who, like Bundy, aided investigators in tracking down an active serial killer after he was imprisoned—he became a kind of malignant superman, a grinning demon with a mask so seamless no one could have seen it slip. But as Sarah Marshall argued in the Believer last year, the idea that Bundy was a breed apart doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s comforting, in a strange way, to think of him as a singularity, to draw a line between the human being we see in Extremely Wicked and the monster Conversations with a Killer exposes. But they are one and the same, and if a useful truth emerges from either film, it exists between them, and not in one or the other.