Jeffrey Dahmer in Marc Meyers’ My Friend Dahmer (2017) is a mid 1970s teenager, going to sub urban high-school in Richfield, Ohio. With a messy mop of blonde hair and thick oversized wire-frame glasses, Dahmer often exudes a dull stare. He walks warily with slouched shoulders. He doesn’t seem to have any friends, doesn’t date a girl, and is visibly distressed over his broken family. Dahmer collects carcasses of roadkill to dissolve them in acid and his sexual feelings towards men slightly perplexes him. However, through bizarre antics, Dahmer’s status in school rises to a semi-popular weird kid.
If Dahmer was just a character in a coming-of-age story, we may expect the entry of a motivational figure, who would surprisingly channel the teenager’s dark energy into something good. But this is the early life of Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious serial killer and sex offender (known as ‘Milwaukee Cannibal’). Between 1978 and 1991, Dahmer brutally killed 17 males. Rape, necrophilia, dismemberment, and cannibalism were all part of his modus operandi. My Friend Dahmer, based on John “Derf” Backderf’s 2002 graphic novel, chronicles the juncture at which the misfit teen went off the deep end.
It’s a strangely discomfiting movie. No humans are killed during the narrative. Although we see carcasses of animals and birds, we don’t see them being killed. Yet, director Marc Meyers imparts a creepy feeling in witnessing the boy’s spiraling down. We also nearly sympathize with teen Dahmer. His condition could be boxed-in under the diagnosis of ‘schizotypal personality disorder’. But this closer scrutiny will make us remember our own alienation and strange hobbies. Interestingly, such note of mundanity in Dahmer’s life is what makes the movie spooky; that this monstrous serial killer was once a shy kid, seeking some attention and love.
Previous efforts in turning Dahmer’s life into a movie weren’t very successful. Be it the fictionalized 2002 biopic Dahmer (Jeremy Renner played the titular role), the ill-conceived Raising Jeffrey Dahmer (2006) or even the documentary film The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (2012). None came close to scrutinizing the genesis of Dahmer’s darkest desires. Cleveland-based cartoonist Backderf’s graphic novel/memoir forms the basis of My Friend Dahmer. Backderf went to school with Dahmer and had briefly befriended him. Director Meyers incorporates Backderf’s memories, while also focusing a bit sharply on Dahmer’s disoriented home-life. Ross Lynch, former star of a hit Disney Channel series called Austin & Ally, impeccably adopts a frozen, deadpan posture to play the central character.
Meyers swiftly uses technique to give the film a very specific sense of time and place. He incorporates popular songs of the time, National Lampoon t-shirts, and talks of Monty Python show. At school, Derf (Alex Wolff) and his gang of not-so-cool high-schoolers consider Dahmer their mascot. They encourage him to participate in eccentric pranks, which include doing fake epileptic seizures in public places. Derf considers Dahmer to be his muse, drawing the guy in different gonzo attires. He also forms Dahmer Fan Club, enlisting other group of kids to watch Dahmer’s jackass activities. Dahmer’s emotionally unstable mother Joyce (Anna Heche) mostly neglects her two sons, and hates being cooped up in the house.
Dad Lionel (Dallas Roberts) is a chemist and often worries about his son’s loner status. “I want you to have friends in a way I never could”, earnestly says the dad. Alas, the growing unrest with his wife keeps him away from home. As a child Dahmer asks his dad what happens to animal carcass dissolved in acid. Happy that his usually quiet kid is scientifically curious, Lionel shares his knowledge with Dahmer. But it was hardly a wise parental decision. Especially, when Dahmer increasingly spends time at the backyard shack, keeping jars of dissolving animals and collecting their bones. In order to restore his son on to the path of normalcy, Lionel eventually destroys the wood shack.
The very strong social rejection and sexual frustration don’t curb the adolescent’s violent urges.
The film largely works because Meyers doesn’t take an overly violent and gruesome route to present the titular character. The primarily unnerving thing about the film is how restrained and emotional it is. Meyers subtly censures the behavior of Dahmer’s alleged friends, who don’t fully understand that they have turned this strange boy into an object for their immature entertainment. On one occasion, they casually remark, in front of Dahmer, that no girl would ever go to prom with him. To prove them wrong, Dahmer genuinely approaches a shy girl, who after some hesitation accepts his offer. The director stages the ensuing prom scene in a subtle and surprisingly moving manner.
This act of compassion and generosity plus his vexation over parental neglect ultimately compel us to ask the all-important question: If Dahmer had some person in his life to help channel his sexual and other impulses in a healthy manner, could he be fended off from taking the murderous path?
There are more than a couple of scenes which don’t bring intended drama to the narrative. But the non-violent approach to acknowledge the possibility of humanity within the generally labeled ‘monstrous’ figure is what makes Meyers’ character study very compelling. Moreover, Meyers doesn’t take the misstep of overtly analyzing or accusing the nature of a fractured middle-class family to link it with Dahmer’s serial-killing traits. His controlled direction, in fact, doesn’t blame one particular aspect as the reason for Dahmer’s sinistral transformation. The performances are largely understated. Both Anna Heche and Roberts are excellent as Dahmer’s parents. Rossy Lynch, in the titular role, maintains a fine balance in exploring his disturbed characters’ humanity and monstrosity.