Film Review – My Friend Dahmer
My Friend Dahmer
Derf Backderf’s graphic novel My Friend Dahmer is an honest character study of a person who lacks so much basic humanity that he was barely able to function beyond whatever role society wanted to project onto him. Jeffery Dahmer was a real life monster; a sociopath who maimed and slaughtered young men within a handful of years before he was caught in 1991 by the police. After his apartment was raided by the authorities, barrels of bodies dissolving in acid were found, as well as severed heads and jars filled with his victims’ genitalia hidden in his refrigerator. But before Dahmer succumbed to his darkest sexual fantasies that lead him into murder and cannibalism, he was just an awkward mid-western teenager in high school.
Backderf’s memories of the pre-killer Dahmer is a difficult read because you find yourself wanting to hop into the story to warn everybody about what they’re ignoring. You want to warn Jeffery’s parents who are far too preoccupied with their jobs and their divorce, you want to warn his adopted friend-group, who are more interested in Jeff’s drunken antics than they are with making a human connection with the loner, and most of all, there’s a weird part of you that wants to warn Dahmer himself, who is so secretive and alone with his confused sexuality that you find yourself wishing you could give the kid a healthy birds and bees talk before his fantasies metastasize.
In this film version of the critically acclaimed comic book, adapted and directed by indie filmmaker Marc Meyers, Dahmer’s story is less of a third person autobiography, and more of a mood piece from the perspective of the subject himself, rather than Backderf’s second-hand account. This direction pays off, as far as bringing us into the troubled head-space of this teenager, but it also demands a clearer answer to the big “why” of the movie’s thesis without having an honest way to provide such solace.
Ross Lynch, who came up as a Disney channel actor, has the difficulty of playing someone who is both a blank slate and a brooding soul at the same time. We are introduced to his world through the people around him. Dahmer’s mealy-mouthed, passive father Lionel, played with effective vulnerability by Dallas Roberts, and his aloof, boundary-lacking mother Joyce, often overplayed by Anne Heche, leave their boy to his own devices while he collects road-kill and dissects the corpses of dead cats and other creatures within his makeshift laboratory in his back yard. Finally, after Lionel forces his son to leave the death-filled shed so that he can start talking to other peers at his school, the seventeen year old is soon noticed by a group of class clowns who decide to turn Dahmer into their unofficial mascot. For a few months of their senior year, before eventually getting bored of him, they find mild amusement in watching Dahmer spaz out in public and getting him to appear in every club photo in their yearbook, and Backderf even commemorates these experiences with comics and drawings of the awkward Jeffery doing his signature disabled-person shtick. Of course what these teens don’t know is that their newest acquaintance is struggling with his own sanity as his sexuality and his antisocial behavior begins to merge, often drowning his repressed depravity with stolen liquor.
The movie does a fine enough job at exploring the nuts and bolts of the narrative and expressing it in a way that brings us uncomfortably close to Dahmer’s psyche, but it doesn’t go far enough visually or cinematically. Much of this film’s tonal and emotional effectiveness hinges on what people already know about Dahmer’s reputation as a serial killer before going into the theater. Meyers’ indie film approach to the material sometimes begs for a more confident stylistic approach to the genre thriller that lurks below this high-school drama. Certain story elements echo characteristics from horror classics such as “Carrie” and “Psycho,” which only underlines how fey and weightless this production can feel in comparison. However, the director’s defense, this is also a story that you don’t want to overcook, given the potential that it could easily slip into horror cheese, insensitive exploitation or both, and even under its art-house gauze there are a few key sequences that evoke the simmering tension Backderf originally intended, including a chilling, near-perfect ending.
Alex Wolff as the young Backderf and Tommy Nelson and Harrison Holzer as Neil and Mike of the Dahmer “fan-club,” allows for the audience to connect to characters that are less intentionally mysterious. Meyers’ handling of Jeffery’s ‘70s high school experience is often the strongest and most relatable material in the film. It’s obvious that while working on this project this young group got to know each other well and that their bond on set helped to create a believable sense of history with these characters. Within this, Lynch effectively lurks in the background of these group scenes with equal amounts of pathos and menace.
My Friend Dahmer is a good film but I unfortunately it isn’t essential, and though it sticks pretty close to source graphic novel, Backderf’s literary asides and third-person narration helps to build that necessary bridge between the events of the story being told and the implied horror of Dahmer’s post-adolescent fate. It’s clear that Meyers’ is most interested in capturing the actors’ performances and highlighting their character work, and as such, this is mostly a performance-driven movie. In this regard, the picture succeeds in showcasing moments of fantastic acting, and Ross Lynch has certainly graduated beyond his Disney credentials, but it’s only in rare instances when the film manages to transcend its evenly lit two-shots; when the camera pulls back, the soundtrack swells and scenes engage in a more expressive, primitive emotional abstraction. It’s only then when the power and potential of this story is fully realized