Jeffrey Dahmer is one of the most notorious serial killers the world has ever seen. His crimes were numerous and beyond repulsive. Between the summer of 1978 and the summer of 1991, Dahmer murdered 17 men and boys, sometimes raping them beforehand, sometimes after, sometimes mutilating their corpses, and even eating them. As a man, he was the stuff of nightmares. But the daring drama My Friend Dahmer challenges audiences to consider the lonely and angry boy who came before the Milwaukee Cannibal.
Set in the late 1970s, My Friend Dahmer takes audiences back to the hazy, booze-drench, and blood-flecked youth of Dahmer (an inscrutable Ross Lynch) and his future comic creator John "Derf" Backderf, who went on to write and draw the biographical graphic novel on which this movie is based. Back then, Backderf was a sarcastic teen (played here by Alex Wolff) on high school's lower rungs, without a girlfriend, or much ambition. He and his friends decided to get their kicks by befriending the class weirdo, who faked seizures and yowled for attention. This was the beginning of the Dahmer Fan Club, a careless game that encouraged the budding serial killer into some strikingly anti-social behavior. Both the real Backderf and the movie's writer-director Marc Meyers want audiences to see Dahmer as a kid who could have been saved, however, amid the grisly facts of dark hobbies and repressed desires, this message of compassion for a killer is hard to swallow.
Who Dahmer will become hangs over the film like a dark cloud, rumbling with threat of violence. In the opening scene, he's just a sheepish boy, lanky and pale with long blond locks and clumsy glasses, leering longingly out the school bus window at a sweaty man jogging alongside the road. From the start, Meyers teases Dahmer's repressed lust, which would curdle into something lethal. Then in the very next scene, this kid gets creepier, guiding some classmates to a wooden shack where he's brewing a sinister hobby. There, he shows off the murky glass jars in which he has poured roadkill's remains and acid, because he likes the bones. True crime fans know well that animal mutilation in children is a big red flag, a common trait among serial killers. But even if you don't know that, how likely are you to empathize with this kid, someone who's ogling strangers, collecting animal corpses, and stripping them to bones for his own amusement? On top of all this, every time his friends call him Dahmer, I cringed. The name is so infamous it feels like a 4-letter word, wrong to be spoken so casually.
My Friend Dahmer cracks open the killer's troubled youth, showing not only his creepy compulsions, but also his mentally ill mother (Anne Heche, eagerly chewing the scenery) who bullied and belittled him, and in one telling scene, makes her sons eat undercooked chicken. She screeches at them, "In this house, we eat our mistakes." A close-up on Dahmer demands you to remember how someday he'll heed his mother's advice. Defending his book and its movie adaptation, Backderf has argued that had adults only paid attention to Dahmer's cries for help, he might have been saved. The film makes an earnest attempt at this message by surrounding the teen in failing parental figures, a mother who won't -- or can't -- love him, a father who can't be bothered, and a small army of teachers who literally sleep on the job, overlook his in-school binge-drinking, or scribble his troubled face out of the yearbook. But considering Dahmer killed his first victim just two weeks after graduation, this argument feels feeble and self-serving, as if both comic-creator and filmmaker are justifying their morbid fascination with this malicious rapist and murderer through a wonky PSA about mental health.
Shot in a sickly yellow palette of an aged photograph forgotten in the sun, My Friend Dahmer aims to put an arty flourish over its, frankly, exploitative narrative. Backderf takes a shirking share in the blame, presenting himself as a bad friend to a boy in need of help, but this too feels self-serving, seeming a half-assed apology for focusing on Dahmer's humanity, while ignoring that of his many, many victims, who will not be named, only counted, in a chilling title card. The performances are earnest. The drama nauseating, if not because of its organic tragedy, then by the carnage we know will follow. But in final scene, as Dahmer picks up doomed hitchhiker Steven Hicks, I was left to wonder what this was all done for.
I felt no empathy for Dahmer. The boy he was is too overshadowed by the monster he became, a gruesome mythos the movie leans into especially hard in a fantasy sequence where the troubled teen curls up with the stiff, blue body of the jogger he lusts after. And blaming the world around Dahmer for his crimes feels grossly dismissive of his part in the rapes, murders and mutilations of 17 people. Besides, even the movie shows how Dahmer manipulated people around him, wheedling them to go to prom with him, follow him home, or weirding them out to keep them at a distance. How are we supposed to take this empathy bid seriously?
In the end, My Friend Dahmer feels crass and calculating. It aims to capitalize on our perverse fascination with the Milwaukee Cannibal, while congratulating ourselves for finding a moral message in his tragedy. But there's no silver lining in this story. There's no redemption to be found. There is only horror.
My Friend Dahmer made its Canadian premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival on July 16.