Ted Bundy’s cruel, psychopathic nature is well-documented and analyzed, yet that’s not stopping fresh cracks at exploring the psyche of this “charming, handsome” rapist and killer. Netflix’s attempt tries to shine new light on the sordid tale, but it ends up feeling like a haphazardly thrown together project that undersells the sheer evil of its subject.
The main selling point of “Conversations with a Killer” is a series of audio tapes resulting from interviews by journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth in the 1980s. The show attracted early criticism for glamorizing Bundy in its initial trailers, and while it doesn’t quite do so throughout its narrative, it does seem overly fascinated by him. It’s understandable that a documentary about Ted Bundy will focus on Ted Bundy. But by now, thirty years after his execution, his story is not new.
Bundy’s victims themselves are given a cursory treatment with a few photographs here and there and superficial anecdotes (“She wasn’t the type to just disappear!”). Meanwhile, Bundy’s banal narcissism is on full blast. The tapes are little more than Bundy trying to play innocent and display the “charisma” that the media has been obsessed with for four decades now. In reality, his charisma is simply a cloak over what is frankly a story of incredible mediocrity. Childhood friends and acquaintances are brought in to give vacuous, vaguely dramatic statements. Bundy is allowed to expound on how straight-edge he was in college and how he had a “talent” in politics.
This incredible mediocrity is expanded upon for much too long, with a few talking heads here and there providing little substance. Sure, background is useful, but none of what “Conversations” details provides any sort of insight into the “why”s surrounding his crimes. There’s space to innovate within the documentary form, but the directors take no initiative to do so. No narrative structure or thesis about the man is formed, making “Conversations” just a fact dump.
Moreover, the “why” may not actually be that complicated. Ted Bundy was a crass narcissist who enjoyed power over his victims. He blames everything from abuse to pornography, but all that we hear from him should be taken with a grain of salt. He does nothing but deflect and self-aggrandize, and I don’t understand the point of letting him ramble on, feeding into his ego post-ante.
Maybe I just fundamentally don’t understand the place of these true crime documentaries anymore. Why should we care about Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Joseph DeAngelo and a host of other ego-driven, vengeful, misogynistic creatures who contribute nothing except chaos and ruin? Maybe it’s “human nature” to have a morbid interest in these types of stories. However, documentaries like “Conversations” tell nothing of the lives of the victims, in particular, the young women who Ted Bundy sadistically executed. The stories of Bundy and men like him have been told over and over again, and a documentary that copy-pastes grainy archived images and supplements them with the most egregious of documentary tropes is utterly useless.