Critic’s Notebook: With EXTREMELY WICKED out, now we need to be taking Zac Efron seriously as an actor

James C. Clay // Film Critic

Word out is out. We really dig EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE, the new Netflix film about the life and times of serial killer Ted Bundy.

When the film’s trailer premiered, there was a lot of tension surrounding the fact that the psychopath was being portrayed by the attractive Zac Efron, which could make it seem like the filmmakers were aiming to glorify Bundy’s actions. However, what director Joe Berlinger got out of Efron was his best performance to date.

You may be asking yourself, “Well, that’s not very difficult,” but you’d be mistaken. Underneath the young adult star that he became in the early aughts has risen a talented actor that has taken risks from comedy, to musical… and don’t forget he starred in the certifiably insane film THE PAPERBOY way back in 2012.

Not that anybody really needs to be in Efron’s corner, because he has all the support he needs, but it’s time we start taking him seriously as an actor.

Efron as Bundy is no doubt astounding. He gets the physical mannerisms correct and brings a dangerous charm. In a way, Efron is too good looking to be playing a serial killer, but his movie star looks bring enough hyperbole to the film to be grounded by the physicality he brings to the role. After all, he is a dancer.

Let’s go back to a movie that nobody saw and most thought was pretty douchy; that movie is 2015’s WE ARE YOU FRIENDS. In that film, Efron plays an aspiring DJ in the sunny hills of California. (Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds.) However, Efron is so committed to this role and making this story believable, it actually kind of works. It’s really about climbing your way to the top and knowing when to cut some of your friends loose. It can come across as a bit superficial, but just like his portrayal in EXTREMELY WICKED. Efron is the kind of actor that can make you feel cool just by his presence. Actors like Charlize Theron and Leonard DiCaprio are some of the best at this.

Zac Efron as Ted Bundy in ‘EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE.’ Courtesy of Netflix.

Now, I can’t defend everything the guy has done in his career, but what I do know is 11 years ago he worked with (indie king and master of the subtle moment) Richard Linklater on ME AND ORSEN WELLES. Efron adopted a wide-eyed sweetness for his performance, and it was the beginning of his maturation as an actor. He’s quietly been able to switch his charm from heinous, to frat bro machismo, to oh-so endearing. Efron is the kind of actor who enjoys playing with his image on screen.

Being a movie star means you have a presence on screen. Think Seth Rogen: He’s typically always playing the same persona, but with a slight tweak and with a different storyline. Even legendary Robert Redford plays, buy and large, the same part over and over; it’s his natural presence that’s draw us to his work – mostly it’s a play on his public image. With Efron, he really doesn’t have that level of movie star presence, so he has been relying on character work, something that Rogen or Redford don’t typically try. (That work is reserved for the likes of Steve Buscemi.)

With Efron, he’s starting to be an actor who dives into characters. Take a look at another movie nobody saw called THE BEACH BUM from earlier this year: In his extended cameo, Efron plays a character who vapes, wears 1999’s favorite brand of pants (JNCOs) and has facial hair that looks like a panini press was used on his face. He’s daring and trying new things that challenge his public image. This is what we want from our best actors. I am not saying Efron is one of out best actors, but hell, at least he’s trying.

The actor hit a stride with his comedy work, which peaked with 2014’s NEIGHBORS. After a string of so-so efforts and one underrated raunch-fest (MIKE AND DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES), he ditched that and is now playing Ted Bundy on Netflix.

Look, I am not advocated that he’s the second coming of Daniel Day Lewis. I am not even suggesting he’s Mark Ruffalo. All I am suggesting is… give him some credit and pay attention.

EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE is now available on Netflix. Read our review of the film here.

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