By John H. Foote
I love it when this happens.
Remember Norma Rae (1979)? Sally Field has been a cute, perky TV star, proving her gifts with her performance in Sybil (1977) as a woman struggling with multiple personality disorder. That performance led director Martin Ritt to cast her as southern labour organizer Norma Rae, which won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. Who knew Field was this good? A few years ago Eddie Redmayne grabbed himself an Oscar as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014) after years of playing unremarkable wimps. He was very good as Marius in Les Miserables (2012) but nothing it seemed would erase the fey, weak men he had previously portrayed. Then he slipped under the skin of Hawking and was superb.
This year’s great evolution as an actor could be Zac Efron who has spent years as a teen idol, ripped star to the bubble gum brigade. What he does as serial killer Ted Bundy will forever silence his critics, shut down the naysayers and allow Efron to, finally be taken very seriously as an actor.
Effortlessly, he slips under the skin of the insane killer who was intelligent enough to be his own lawyer during his sensational trial. The profoundly exciting performance should alter the course of Efron’s career, bringing to the actor deeper, more substantial roles.
Who was Ted Bundy?
Executed in 1989 for several murders, Bundy was a vicious, psychopath who somewhere deep in his being hated women. Clearly, a misogynist (given the extreme violence with which he carried out his murders), he also enjoyed humiliating the women, having sex with their dead bodies long after death until putrefaction made it impossible. He was known to sexually assault his victims with objects, and used all manner of disguise and lies to lure them close. He never used a gun, believing the noise of a gun would attract attention, choosing instead to knock his victims unconscious with blunt force trauma, beat and mutilate their bodies, then assault them, whether they were dead or not. Some of the young women assaulted by Bundy lived but suffered life long damage such as deafness, memory loss, motto skill destruction or challenges mentally.
Ted Bundy was a remorseless monster, utterly devoid of empathy, or anything remotely humanistic. But what a chameleon he was. By all accounts, he appeared to be, in society, perfectly normal. Charismatic, very intelligent, smooth, a ladies man despite the hatred he felt for women, he was the least likely suspect in the killings until captured and the puzzle was assembled.
The film traces the relationship between Bundy and Liz (Lilly Collins), a pretty single mom who cannot believe her luck when she finds a good looking guy who does not bolt when he discovers she has a baby. On the contrary, Bundy thrives in the family situation. Little does Liz know he has an entire other life she is not yet privy too. They date, they fall in love, they move in together and then Bundy is arrested after a police officer stops him cruising at night. Evidence upon evidence is piled on the young man, and he finds himself on trial for murder, several of them.
Though he continues to deny being a vicious serial killer, Lilly has doubts alone back home. She rarely visits, watches the trial on television, reads about him, but refuses his phone calls or ignores the calls.
In a bold decision by the director not once do we see Bundy killing anyone, we see only a photograph of one of his victims left in the woods. Bold because it then becomes up to the actors to paint a picture of the madness lurking within the man.
This is where Efron shines, capturing the possibility of what Bundy might be underneath the good looks, education, and confidence. In his eyes, we see the madness, flashes of it, and it is terrifying. Yet more alarming is that we also see how he seduced his victims, Lilly and anyone else in his proximity. It is a very intelligent choice on the actors part as to how he chose to play this monster. Wise choices, never allowing us to really see the monster he was, only in fleeting glimpses.
Collins has an even more difficult job. As Liz, she lived with, slept with, loved, shared her child with this man, not knowing at night he was butchering young women. The same hands that caressed her body and face had also choked the life out his unfortunate victims. She feels revulsion, she has deep self-loathing, yet gradually pushes Bundy out of her life, finally seeing him before he dies hoping to get the truth out of him. Just once she hopes to really see him. The actress is every bit as good as Efron, we feel her pain, her humiliation, her foolishness at being duped, at having placed both her life and the life of her child in danger.
I think it was an absolutely brilliant decision on the part of the director and writers not to show Bundy (Efron) murdering anyone. Doing so would have made no sense and been for shock value. I like how the director challenges us to go through what Lilly did, slowly discovering the man she loved, let into her life was a cruel monster.
Jim Parsons does a nice job with his worn out prosecutor, but if anyone really steals any scenes from Efron, it is John Malkovich as the straight arrow judge. Both delightful and stern, he is superb.
This film is the coming out party of a major talent. Neither Efron nor Collins will ever be thought of the same again. Within this dark, surprising film, they each have become artists, deserving and worthy of our respect.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.