“Are you sure you don’t want to run?” Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) asks her handsome brown-eyed date anxiously, when he comes home with her after a night out a bar and sees that she has a young daughter. He stays, but of course it’s Liz we want to tell to run: The man she’s inviting into her life and her bed is Ted Bundy (Zac Efron), one of the most notorious serial killers in modern history.
If you don’t already know his story, director Joe Berlinger’s cagey, carefully paced drama won’t spell it out for you; Bundy’s true nature stays largely below the surface for most of the movie’s nearly two-hour runtime. (Though the title is also a good clue; there’s a reason it’s not called Extremely Innocent, Shockingly Railroaded, and Actually a Pretty Nice Guy).
The deliberate drawing out of the narrative in part mirrors Liz’s own path from total faith in her longtime boyfriend-turned-fiancé to creeping doubt, and the years of guilt and fear and denial that followed his first arrest, for the assault and attempted kidnapping of a young woman in Utah.
Collins walks that line gracefully despite not being given a whole lot to work with, considering the movie is based on Kendall’s own memoir. But it’s Efron the screen belongs to: Alternately charming, belligerent, and incalculably shrewd, he captures both the shark-like charisma of Bundy and the deeply damaged man beneath.
It gets said a lot that certain stars are character actors who just happened to be born into the body of a leading man, but everything about Efron’s obscenely symmetrical good looks serves him here; he’s nothing like what we expect a cold-blooded killer to be, and yet exactly that thing too.
What makes it more than a slick impersonation of sociopathy, though, is the layers he peels — Bundy’s desperation, his endless calculations and longing for connection. He also has some great interplay with John Malkovich, as the Tallahassee judge who engages in a sort of folksy, combative back-and-forth with him in court that nearly verges on buddy comedy.
“You are skating on thin ice,” he tells Bundy at one point, “and ice does not last long in Florida.” He’s right, and Ted’s luck will evaporate soon enough. Efron makes it worth watching him slip under. B