Misgivings at the movies
Woke internet culture versus the Ted Bundy biopic
Convicted serial killer Ted Bundy returned to public consciousness in light of the 30th anniversary of his death and the controversial biopic premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.
John Wayne Gacy, Aileen Wuornos, Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy have all previously been the topic of Hollywood biopics. Their atrocious crimes have all made their way to the silver screen, yet Joe Berlinger’s “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” received a flood of hate following the trailer’s release.
The film’s trailer was met with a misplaced animosity toward the entire production. People took to Twitter calling for a boycott of the film over the casting of Zac Efron and the general tone of the trailer.
But there isn’t a profound reason for this online mass hysteria that is backed by fact.
The true-crime genre has been gaining traction in Hollywood for years. Filmmakers and documentarians have retold the infamous stories of prolific serial killers. There rarely seems to be this level of controversy around the portrayal of serial killers in film.
Many claim that Efron is too attractive to portray the serial killer. Others feel that the film will romanticize Bundy’s heinous crimes. All of these arguments are only based off of the minute-long trailer.
Granted, movie trailers are supposed to give the general public an idea of what to expect with a film. But how many movie trailers accurately depict the entirety of a film’s tone and characterization?
M. Night Shyamalan's “The Village” comes to mind as a misleading trailer. The trailer presented itself as a horror film, when in reality it was a drama with a love story subplot. This type of marketing is far more common than expected and used to draw in a wide audience.
There’s a disconnect between the intention of the trailer’s tone and the audience’s interpretation as well. Interpretation is subjective, but the overwhelming number of claims that “the movie will romanticize Bundy and serial killers in general” seems to be based purely on a theoretical projection.
The reworking of a character of this nature, especially a violent one and storyline within a biopic, into a misunderstood heartthrob is obviously, inherently bad. Yet the trailer does not seem to convey this kind of message, at least not in a straightforward or intentional way.
I don’t believe Efron is the strongest actor. His casting might be questionable in comparison to his previous roles in teenage comedies, but his casting based solely on aesthetic is spot on.
Whether or not people want to sexualize Bundy, it’s undeniable that he didn’t appear to be capable of such a crime. Women would approach his lawyer following trials with notes of support for him. His lawyer went on to say he was “basically, a really good version of a used car salesman,” and Efron fits the role with his Disney charisma.
The film comes from the perspective of Liz Kloepfer, Bundy’s girlfriend, who stood by Bundy through his trial. While this directorial choice is unexpected to say the least, I believe it contributes to the tragedy of the situation. The trailer embodies this idea, but the minute-long runtime isn’t able to develop the emotional investment necessary to feel sorry for Kloepfer’s character.
The film is going to contain framing and dialogue that don’t condemn Bundy’s character. His girlfriend did not believe he was guilty. It doesn’t translate into a love story; it’s a framing technique used to further amplify the betrayal she must have felt.
At no point do I believe the focus should be taken off of the victims of this case, however, I believe Kloepfer is also a victim. Kloepfer was lucky to escape with her life, but she will still live with the guilt of putting herself and her children in constant danger.
The only valid criticism I’ve seen is the condemning of the production of films based on real tragedies. I acknowledge that the film might walk the same line as “American Psycho” or “The Silence of the Lambs,” but fiction films will never carry the same cultural or emotional weight as biopic and documentary films.
The reality is that western cinema is based solely around capitalism. As long as people continue to financially support filmic endeavors based on tragedies, they will continue to be made. It is important to wait until the film has been released before casting judgment on any other factor.
Samantha Vargas is the asst. arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SamVargasArts.