'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile' Review: Zac Efron Gives The Best Performance Of His Career As Ted Bundy [Sundance]

What if someone you loved, someone you thought you knew, someone who seemed so charming and caring, turned out to be an absolute monster? Would you immediately believe it – or would you deny the horrible truth with every fiber of your being? It's hard to know the answer to that question if it's never happened to you. An outsider might assume that accepting the truth would be cut and dry. But life doesn't work that way. And the truth can be a slippery thing.

For four years, Ted Bundy cut a bloody path across America, brutally murdering young women in unspeakable ways. He did it brazenly, not even bothering to use a pseudonym when approaching potential victims in public. He was so entirely sure of his own charm that even when he was captured, and the evidence was stacked against him, he seemed absolutely certain he'd be set free. After all, who could believe a man like Ted Bundy could be a serial killer? That's the question at the heart of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a portrait not just of Bundy, but of the people around him – the people who failed to recognize his true, terrible nature.

Extremely Wicked takes a unique approach to the concept of a serial killer movie. As the early half of the movie unfolds, director Joe Berlinger and writer Michael Werwie seem to be asking: what if Ted Bundy really was innocent? What if this was all some sort of horrible mistake, and Bundy was being wrongfully accused? It's an audacious concept, and it might not go over so well – especially since we, the viewers, know that Bundy was indeed guilty. But Extremely Wicked isn't meant to be from our point of view. It's not even meant to be from Bundy's. Instead, it's trying to tell the story of Elizabeth Kloepfer, Bundy's longtime girlfriend who had the wool pulled over her eyes for so long. Berlinger isn't suggesting here that Elizabeth was utterly clueless. Instead, he's making us understand why it took so long for her to accept the truth. Ted was just too charming, too likable, and yes, too handsome.

Bundy is played by Zac Efron, and while the actor is a little too good-looking to be playing the character, he nails down the part in an absolutely eerie way. It's a transformative performance – Efron takes on Bundy's mannerisms perfectly, to the point where it no longer feels like we're watching Efron – we're watching Bundy resurrected from the grave. Efron has been doing good work in so-so films for a while now, but here, he gives the best performance of his career. He's matched at every turn by Lily Collins, who plays Elizabeth Kloepfer. Collins has the less showy role – after all, Ted is walking, talking charisma – but she brings a remarkable amount of inner turmoil to the part. We can feel her anguish as she struggles to deal with the many, many accusations against Ted.

As Extremely Wicked unfolds, we never see Ted committing any of the murders he's accused of. They happen offscreen, and it's hard to reconcile the charismatic young man with so many heinous crimes. Ted professes his innocence at every turn, and he's so convincing in his excuses that it really does start to seem like he's being railroaded.

He's not, of course. And here is where Extremely Wicked runs into problems. The movie can only play up the potential innocence angle for so long, at which point it starts to turn into something entirely different. It stops being a story about Elizabeth, and turns into a story about Bundy. This switch in narrative creates tonal problems, as Berlinger often goes for comedy – which seems all wrong for this type of story. There are also an abundance of needle drops that feel pull the viewer directly out of the action at every turn. Yet Berlinger's direction is also sharp, and he has a knack for making mundane moments suddenly disturbing, like when Ted and Elizabeth visit the pound to adopt a dog, and things don't go according to plan.

As Bundy moves through the legal system, Elizabeth grows more and more distant from him, causing Ted to find a new woman to manipulate – old flame Carole Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario). Scodelario is the weak link in an otherwise strong cast – her performance is too broad, too over-the-top. She seems like she's auditioning for Saturday Night Live rather than playing a real-life figure. It doesn't help that the script seems to be presenting Boone as an absolute dummy for not realizing Ted was guilty, while being sympathetic to Elizabeth. Why not present both as smart women who were fooled by this serial killer's charm? The fact is, Boone never resonates as a character. The film should've stuck entirely to Elizabeth's POV – that's where the heart of Extremely Wicked really lies. It's strange that Berlinger and company never seem to realize that. This should've ultimately been the story of Elizabeth Kloepfer, and her journey to reclaim her life after being manipulated for so many years. Instead, Ted Bundy steals the show. It's as if just like his real-life victims, the very film itself was unable to resist Bundy's charms.

/Film rating: 7 out of 10