Quick Hit: After a weak opening that studies its subject clinically, Dahmer settles in to be a very profoundly disturbing film.
Our society has always had a fascination with morbid, fringe crime. It goes back into our fear of what’s abnormal – a fear of what doesn’t fit in. There are, of course, very famous examples of this in film – The Silence of the Lambs springs immediately to mind, along with Psycho. But there seems to be a very recent resurgence in serial killer interest lately. There’s a terrific binge-worthy show on Netflix called Mindhunter that follows FBI psychological profiling in its infancy. There’s a drama in development starring Zac Efron as Ted Bundy – and then there’s today’s film, My Friend Dahmer.
What unfolds after an extremely slow opening is a very good film that explores why Jeffrey Dahmer became the monster that he was/is. Ross Lynch plays Jeff (or Jeffrey, depending on the scene) and he’s just another confused teenage boy here. He has odd interests that go a bit past normal – in the opening scenes he’s scooping roadkill in order to dissolve them in jars later – but overall he doesn’t seem too far north of just being odd. Eventually he is welcomed into a “Jeffrey Dahmer fan club”, led by John ‘Derf’ Backderf (Alex Wolff). What follows is a deconstruction of how teenagers treat each other – sometimes cruelly and without thought to the lasting implications of the behavior.
I had the pleasure to spend time at a post-screening Q&A session with director Marc Meyers. He stated one of his intentions was to make a film about how it’s not the fault of the teenagers, or the parents, or the teachers at the high school when a troubled individual flies under the radar – instead it’s no one’s fault and it’s everyone’s fault. He also worked closely with the author of the graphic novel that this movie was based on – the actual Derf Backderf. He also continually stated he wasn’t making a film to glorify Dahmer – simply to explore the origin of a serial killer.
The film and Lynch’s excellent performance ground the film. There are a lot of unspoken thoughts going through Jeff’s head – struggles with his sexual preferences, struggles with family dynamics, and the internal teenage struggle to fit in – but often times, this is just internalized. There’re also some short bits that illustrate Jeff as a caring brother and a good friend, and a guy who is funny without realizing it. To see the person that Dahmer could have been versus who he eventually became is extremely jarring, but is painted effectively here.
One thing that struck me as a highlight in the film was the camerawork. Often times using an approach that has the camera following people, the camera gives us the real feeling of being there. We’re a part of the high school just like Derf, Jeff and their friends – and we’re also a part of Jeff’s messed up family dynamic, with his mother continually exhibiting mental health problems. It’s a very effective technique in the film that works really well with the sets – nearly all of which were shot in the town where Dahmer really lived (the house featured was actually Dahmer’s house).
My Friend Dahmer is a strong instance in the realm of graphic novel adaptations, and even stronger in the way it makes you feel empathy for someone so monstrous. It’s definitely worth your time. I’m giving it a “B+”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"