My Friend Dahmer, a soft-biopic about Jeffrey Dahmer’s senior year of high school in 1978 just months before he committed his first murder, could have easily veered into fetishization territory. To the filmmakers’ credit, their stubborn refusal to build empathy for Dahmer (Ross Lynch) creates tension about when Dahmer might do, rather than what Dahmer might do.
It would have been easy to paint Dahmer’s troubled teen years – the bullying and the homophobia and the fractured family – as debts accrued toward his eventual comeuppance, but writer/director Marc Meyers does not succumb to this problematic impulse. Dahmer is not unsympathetic, but he is clearly unkind, cowardly, cruel, and (in one particularly eerie scene) tellingly racist. These are not the romantic traits of operatic serial killers that Hollywood so often loves to deploy for cheap pathos. Dahmer is unlikable and threatening from the outset. There is no sense of “will he? won’t he?” – the film opens with a shot of Dahmer staring longingly out of a schoolbus window at an attractive jogger (Vincent Kartheiser) as they pass a bloody piece of roadkill. It’s obvious young Jeffrey Dahmer is still Jeffrey Dahmer – a mass-murderer and cannibal who butchered and cannibalized seventeen men (most of whom were men-of-color, incidentally). How much of this deft tone is owed to the autobiographical graphic novel by John “Derf” Backderf (Alex Wolff) on which the film is based, I cannot say, having never read it, but considering Derf served as a close advisor to the project I’d assume much.
This is not to say Meyers shies away from an intimacy with Dahmer. We get close to him – his family, his longing for companionship, his escalating forays into real violence. Many scenes do not include Derf, the supposed witness to these events, which begs the question of how much is fabricated and how much is extrapolated from Dahmer’s later confessions. Dahmer may not be the unknowable alien evil of a Michael Myers or a Jason Voorhees, but neither is he the grotesque fetish-object, e.g. Hannibal Lecter or Alex DeLarge. The things he does are unforgivably ugly and ratchet up suspense for an eventual, but obviously inevitable explosion. Again, it’s the when Dahmer will kill, not the whether or not. The only downside to this less-sensational approach is that most of My Friend Dahmer plays out as a lot of things just kind-of happening. The conclusion is nail-bitingly tense and expertly paced, but everything before those palpitating moments sort of reads as high-realist ennui. Bad and eerie things happen, both to-and-around Dahmer, but because the explosive tension is reserved for the final act, the first hour mostly consists of scattershot shocker moments and black humor. There is little traditional ’cause-and-effect’ plotting.
Most of the film works as either a dark-tinted “quirky high-school pariah” dramedy or a “nexus of evil” spotlight, depending on whether or not you find Dahmer’s mock-cerebral palsy seizures funny and can stomach the sight of dead cats. Even armed with prior knowledge of Dahmer’s eventual crimes, the anticipation is languorously padded out. Sure, slow-burn creepiness generates an atmosphere of tension, but it’s just that; an atmosphere. My Friend Dahmer is an atmospheric film at heart, more concerned with elucidating the aura that Jeffrey Dahmer exuded on the precipice of great evil than forcing some narrative about the steps to that cliff’s edge.
There are other gripes to be had with My Friend Dahmer. The production design struggles to hold together the otherwise bland aesthetics of the film; it doesn’t bode well for your film’s cinematography if the most interesting visual components are decor and locale from late-’70s suburban Ohio. The languid pace lends a lizard-brained tension to the otherwise circumstantial plot, but the momentum quickens too jarringly in the latter third.
Most disarmingly, the film can’t seem to decide whether or not it wants Wolff’s Derf to be a dual-protagonist with Dahmer. Considering the source-material is autobiographical, it does seem like My Friend Dahmer doesn’t explore enough the unbelievable coincidence of a graphic artist just-so-happening to have been best friends with a future serial killer in high school. Derf and the rest of the “Jeffrey Dahmer fan-club” have a couple of scenes in which they debate the ethics of exploiting their new friend for laughs and popularity, but most of them come off as flat and repetitive. If the film could have decided whether or not to explore Derf’s regret at perceivably influencing Dahmer’s psychosis (even though the film stresses that this is not the case) rather than flip-flop on how deep to go with his character, it might have spared audiences some ambivalence. That said, the way My Friend Dahmer tackles some of the ludicrous true-stories of Dahmer and Derf’s friendship – such as the time Dahmer scammed their way into a meeting with Vice President Walter Mondale – is absurd and wonderful.
The sound design and score of My Friend Dahmer low-key supports the otherwise flimsy tension of the first two acts, with Dahmer’s few instances of contemplative violence heightened by shrill punctuative notes. However, it’s inarguably Ross Lynch’s Dahmer that cornerstones the film. The former Disney channel star / boy-band frontman has ostensibly chosen to go the Zac Efron route with his post-tween roles, but delving into darker territory certainly seems to pay off. Lynch is absolutely riveting as Dahmer. His shuffling gait and low-slung eyes disappear when he switches, psychopath-style, to seductive-charmer-mode, and his macabre curiosity is terrifying. He’s a suburban gothic monster, and Lynch steps into the still-growing shoes of a serial-killer in bloom with unnerving ease. Meyers does well to keep him in-frame in nearly every scene. The rest of the cast is decent-to-good, particularly Anne Heche as Dahmer’s mother Joyce and Vincent Kartheiser during one stand-out scene in a doctor’s office.
My Friend Dahmer is indie-fare for the eclectic palette. Not derivative enough to be daytime-TV biopic schlock, and not art-house enough to be alternative docu-drama (a lá Bronson (2008)), Dahmer hangs in that liminal place where independent film often thrives. It’s well-formulated, tonally consistent, and well-performed. Whether or not you go in blind about the crimes Dahmer committed, it serves as an unconventional portrait of the serial killer as a young man. Painting Jeffrey Dahmer as a gothic monster – born, not made – comes off as refreshing in an age of humanizing narratives about evil white men. It’s a time-bomb of a film, and if you can get past the slow countdown, the nail-biting payoff might just be worth the price of admission.
A disdain for mawkish ‘humanization’ tropes and a commanding performance from Ross Lynch distinguishes Marc Meyers’ My Friend Dahmer from standard-fare serial killer character studies. Dahmer is not so much a character as he is an element – charged and volatile, endowed with the impetus and ability to do great evil.
DISCLAIMER: David Yurman is an employee of FilmRise, who are currently distributing My Friend Dahmer to theaters around the country.