Berlinger arguably could have kept much of the documentary’s archival source material, with its heavy emphasis on Bundy, while reframing the killer’s story as one about the women whose lives he cut short. Instead, he produced a perfectly serviceable Conversations that adds little to the conversation at all.
It took me two viewings of this series back to back before I could understand what this adds to the conversation and study of serial killers, psychopaths, and of course Ted Bundy. What is so haunting, and what really creeped me out the first time I watched this, is the fact that this show feels almost tame and without as intense of focus on the depravity and sadistic violence of the killer and instead chooses an angle that strongly allows for Bundy to maintain his narrative. I remember finishing this the first time and thinking, "I realize objectively that he is one of the worst serial killers of modern history, but I can't tell if I think he's actually a terrible guy." And it's because this series is able to tell its story with his social performance of charm and charisma at the front.
Upon the second viewing was when the point really stuck: that's just how intensely powerful superficial behaviors are for most when determining the social merit of a person. It's easy to think when reading a history book about these individuals, "How come nobody could tell? It must have just been a continuous oversight that could have been rectified simply."
Then of course, the analysis of the trial was completely fascinating to me. I think in general, American and British media alike tend to force a narrative about serial killers comparing them and perceiving them as if they are all Hannibal Lector--psycho genius with superior, emotionless intellect without any weaknesses. American celebrate psychopaths for being free of emotion, and they are elevated into being super villains. This documentary breaks that mold though, and it's so important! We see in the trial how Ted Bundy's psychopathy is not his greatest strength, it's an incredible weakness. He is a danger to himself and to others. Why? He is incapable of being emotionally vulnerable with anyone, including himself. He can't admit to his shortcomings, not his real shortcomings, and because of this we see how prevalent this dysfunction is and how much it hinders his ability to 1) defend himself productively, 2) let others defend himself, 3) retain an actual, emotional and feeling connection with humanity.
This docu-series made me realize that psychopaths have a lot more in common with regular people, but with no way to rectify and satisfy and truly address their own emotional needs. They still feel the same feelings of emptiness, meaninglessness, melancholy, and go through accepting how tiny they are compared with the rest of the world. The problem is that, with the psychopathy disorder, their response to dealing with these feelings is by denial, being the ultimate forms of selfish, and trying to fill themselves up with superficial purpose (namely, killing others and becoming "famous" and "powerful" in doing so). From this, I finally saw and could understand: psychopathy is, in fact, the ultimate personified form of personal trauma; the individual is forever locked in their disability of confronting their weaknesses and growing and moving on. Not that it justifies serial murders.
There are no narrative twists awaiting us here. No miscarriages of justice straining to be heard. No insights into the complexities of an unfolding case or scandal of corrupt policemen, judges, clergy or politicians. The tapes themselves are the USP here. ... The only truly chilling thing about Conversations With a Killer was how unchilling it was.
Despite the editors’ superb interweaving of personal photos, police evidence, and archival footage of ’70s Seattle, Conversations with a Killer seems largely unaware of its own obliviousness. Just because the series, like Michaud, can’t get to the center of Bundy doesn’t mean that the only potentially interesting storytelling avenue has been obstructed, and therefore there’s nothing a filmmaker can do but say, “People are ultimately unknowable, and Bundy is no exception.”
Bundy is at best an unpleasant companion through four long episodes, and at worst repellent--makes Conversations With a Killer a must only for true-crime completists. ... For the uninitiated, though, the film takes the form of the banal audio footage at its core. ... [Director Joe Berlinger] never proves why Bundy matters as anything other than a case study in narcissism.
More of a conventional documentary than advertised, but it provides a good overview
In many ways, Ted Bundy is the archetypal serial killer, embodying many of the characteristics we associate with such criminals. Most significantly he was the first celebrity serial killer, and remains the best-known example (Charles Manson wasn't a serial killer). He also embodies media and cultural fixation with killers, almost always at the expense of their victims. And although Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes certainly has merit, and is well-made, it's also guilty of focusing on the killer whilst giving little time over to the victims. Written and directed by Joe Berlinger, one gets the distinct impression that Bundy himself would have been immensely happy with it.
Conversations is derived from over 100 hours of audio recordings of Bundy being interviewed by Stephen G. Michaud, the transcripts of which have been available online for years, but which have never actually been heard before. One of the most important aspects of the series, is that Bundy would not discuss the murders, and so, to trick him into talking about them, Michaud asked him to act as a kind of consultant and to speculate as to the killer's motives. Not recognising that Michaud was exploiting his narcissism, Bundy immediately began to talk about the murderer in the third person.
However, Conversations is more of a conventional documentary than you might expect. This is not necessarily a criticism, as the biographical material, whilst never original, is interesting and well put together; his involvement with the Vietnam Anti-war Movement, his work for a Suicide Hotline, his work as Assistant Director of the Seattle Crime Prevention Advisory Commission (where he wrote a pamphlet for women on **** prevention).
An equally fascinating aspect of the series, but one which is under-explored, is how Bundy's white privilege factored into his murders. As a well-educated, well-dressed, humorous, respectable middle-class white man, obviously intelligent, and seemingly charming, he was able to hide in plain sight, because no one could conceive of a man like him being a sadistic murderer.
The problem, however, is that the show falls into the same trap; Bundy's wit and charm appears to win Berlinger over, as he seems to be just as fascinated with Bundy's antics as the media and public were. To be fair, the show doesn't glorify him; Berlinger ensures the audience knows he was a monster. However, the question is raised of when does documenting a violent narcissist transition into giving them a platform?
With this in mind, the victims receive relatively little attention. Some, like his youngest victim, 12-year-old Kimberly Leach, are focuses upon,, but others are lumped together, and Berlinger makes no real effort to characterise them. Instead of giving us a vivid illustration of who they were by interviewing family and friends, Berlinger gives us a rough pencil sketch made up of contemporary news reports.
Aside from the side-lining of victims, the most obvious issue with Conversations is that it's a far more conventional piece than a deep dive into previously untapped reservoirs of Bundy's psyche. Part of the reason for this is the dearth of actual audio material, as from the 100 hours available, Berlinger uses about 20 minutes all told. Pretty much everything else is standard bio material, nothing that anyone familiar with the case won't already know.
There are also some very strange aesthetic choices. For example, as Bundy discusses his relationship with Elizabeth Kloepfer, a montage of contemporaneous footage depicts exactly what he's talking about (when me mentions eating dinner, there's a shot of a family sitting around the dinner table; when he mentions being nervous, we see someone biting their nails). It's a spectacularly on-the-nose montage that accomplishes nothing. A similar moment sees Bundy discussing sexuality, and Berlinger shows us a rapid montage of hardcore S&M porn, which is not only distasteful, it's ideologically reductionist. The worst example is when Carol DaRonch, one of five victims to survive Bundy, mentions that her life flashed before her, Berlinger inserts a montage of quaint home movie footage.
If all that sounds very negative, however, let me be clear, I did enjoy Conversations, I was just a little disappointed in it. People already familiar with the case won't learn anything new, and those looking for a unique entry-point into the mind of a killer will be left wanting. Nevertheless, this is the story of a sociopathic narcissist that comments not just on societal privilege, but which also interrogates our own ghoulish fascination with such monsters. And yes, Berlinger seems unaware of the glaring irony here, but that doesn't change the fact that he has fashioned the ramblings of a mad man into a fascinating piece of work.
there sure is an eery feeling throughout the series, but in my opinion, looses focus very shortly on the importance of the tapes, that was what drew me into watching the show. otherwise it doesn't seem to add anything new about Bundy.
Netflix drops on us this Ted Bundy documentary and after its four episodes, I found myself wanting more, but not in a good way. The content is interesting but I would have preferred a deeper and more detailed dive into this utterly insane story. If this would have been an 8 episode run with more time spent on all of the events that surrounded this story, I believe it would have left us with a more engaging story arc to follow. With all that in mind, it’s still a decent docuseries that’s worth watching but when compared to other true-crime shows, doesn’t quite match up. 6 out of 10
The episodes help give an explanation of what the Ted Bundy case was like and what happened without adding much else. There is too much focus on this show being scary instead of looking at what this man did and it being looked at seriously. Conversations with a killer could be better if the focus was placed on what happened instead of trying to amp up the scariness. The actions of this one man are scary enough
The show tried hard to bring a scary, eerie vibe, but you won't get much of that here. It's a psychopathic narcissist talking on tape, and much of the first episode involves listening to the interviewer bragging about how to get that narcissist talking. It's just not good television. The parts about the facts of the murders were told well, but ultimately, anyone who cares about this show probably knows those facts already anyway.