Conversations with a Killer review: Netflix takes stab at profiling terrifying serial killer Ted Bundy
Conversations with a Killer review: Netflix’s latest true crime series takes a feeble stab at understanding one of the most notorious serial killers of all time: Ted Bundy. Rating: 2.5/5.Updated: Jan 28, 2019 10:53 IST
Director - Joe Berlinger
Rating - 2.5/5
“Extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile.” This was how the judge described serial killer Ted Bundy’s crimes, before he sentenced him to death. These words, taken in the same order, will also serve as the title for an upcoming film about Bundy, directed by Joe Berlinger.
Berlinger is somewhat of a pioneer in the true crime genre, having burst onto the scene in the early ‘90s with his Paradise Lost trilogy, which he co-directed with the late Bruce Sinofsky. Those movies, told over the course of a decade, literally helped save the lives of three young men, convicted of the murder of three children. They are, to this day, despite the overabundance of exhaustively researched podcasts and lavishly crafted documentary series, the gold standard of true crime.Watch the Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes trailer here
With the genre now witnessing a golden age, Berlinger before debuting Extremely Wicked… has released a preamble of sorts, the four-part Netflix documentary, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes - titled, as you’d agree, with decidedly less panache.
This is an interesting scenario, one that affords the same filmmaker two bites at the apple, in two highly contrasting forms. It reminded me of when Andrew Jarecki made All Good Things, a drama about accused murderer Robert Durst, with Ryan Gosling in the lead role, and followed it up in 2015, with his HBO documentary series, The Jinx, which led to the arrest of Durst.
Like the Jinx, the biggest card Conversations with a Killer has up its sleeve is that it offers viewers an account of the story straight from the horse’s mouth. Scattered throughout its four episodes are snippets of audio recordings made during multiple interview sessions conducted by a journalist, when Bundy was in prison. Unlike the Jinx, however, barely anything Bundy says is of value, or interest - it’s hardly the confessional it has been advertised as.
In situations such as this, when the subject has already been so widely and thoroughly profiled, it pays to provide unique insight into either his methods, or his psychology. Conversations with a Killer does neither. It makes only the most half-hearted - forgive the pun - stabs at understanding why Bundy did what he did. It is mostly content in merely reporting what happened, with little to no subtext.
Bundy was a killer of women, perhaps the most infamous since Jack the Ripper. That in itself, especially now, is an idea worth exploring. It is said that he murdered, over the course of many years and across several states, more than 30 young women. And the manner in which he killed them - there were sexual overtones to his crimes, which included necrophilia, all conducted with brutal violence - was especially gruesome. And yet, Bundy maintained his innocence until the very end, and retained his disarming charm. Many women in the show point out how oddly good-looking he was, a trait he tragically used to lure many of his victims. “He looked like one of us,” says a future lawyer, alluding also to Bundy’s college education and solid family support. It was perhaps this mysterious allure that inspired Berlinger to cast Zac Efron as Bundy in his upcoming film.
The twists and turns his life took are undeniably interesting. For instance, Bundy successfully staged multiple jail-breaks. And towards the end of his life he took on a Hannibal Lecter-style role as an advisor to the FBI’s nascent serial killer department. Perhaps a future season of Netflix’s Mindhunter will revisit this story.
But Conversations with a Killer seems neither interested in mining Bundy’s life for pulp thrills, nor seeking any sort of emotional catharsis for his victims and their families. It plays simply like reading a Wikipedia page, scored to jarring electronic music.
For fans of true crime - and I count myself as one - Bundy and his terrible misdeeds will be enough of a reason to stick around till the end, especially since four episodes is hardly a commitment at all. But for curious outsiders, the telling will prove to be too dry to evoke any sort of visceral emotion - a key to any true crime story’s success.