“My Friend Dahmer” (2017)
Running Time: 107 minutes
Written & directed by: Marc Meyers
Featuring: Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Dallas Roberts, and Anne Heche
Jeffrey Dahmer: I’m just like anybody else.
This week sees the release on DVD of a movie centered on part of the adolescent life of now dead serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in the interestingly titled “My Friend Dahmer” (2017) which was initially a graphic novel by childhood friend Derf Backderf . Backderf examined his friendship with Dahmer which included an empathetic portrait of Dahmer as a lonely young man, tormented by inner demons, ridiculed by bullies at school, and neglected by the adults in his life. The graphic novel recalls Dahmer’s isolation, his binge drinking, his bizarre behaviour to get attention, and his disturbing fascination with road kill. Derf and his friends encouraged Dahmer to act out, including faking epileptic seizures in school and the mall and pretending to have cerebral palsy, Dahmer did this to fit in with his peers.
Interestingly this movie feels not to far from its origins with its subtle characterisation, its deliberate pace, the way in which real people are treated as three dimensional characters and not just background props to be juxtaposed against Dahmer who is the central character as well as the one person the audience is supposed to concentrate on. What I enjoyed about this movie is that it paints the picture of someone real, not an arch character that we are supposed to vilify from the beginning. As with real life people are shaped by a variety of influences, I found myself wanting to reach out and shake the people around Dahmer to open their eyes to the person that he is slowly becoming. Unlike other movies about serial killers this one is almost sympathetic as it attempts to understand Dahmer in his earlier years, not in adulthood when many other similarly themed genre movies are set, when the killer is carrying out his crimes. That is why “My Friend Dahmer” is more drama than anything else with hints of horror in terms of his fascination with death and taxidermy. In fact I would say that this is one of the better films that deals directly with serial killers because of two main elements; its origins as well as the fact that is was originally written by someone who knew Dahmer at the time, and the fact that this is not a sensationalist film in the slightest, it also makes sure not to sugar coat or make you feel sympathy for the antagonist, it represents elements of the time period almost objectively which besides the performances is possibly its greatest strength.
Adapted and directed by Marc Meyers “My Friend Dahmer” has to be seen as a real breakthrough as it deals with some very serious issues as well as being based on a real person who committed some extremely atrocious murders. There is no doubt that this would have been a challenging film to make, especially in terms of honouring the real people involved as well as the very fact that anyone viewing this knows what the future holds for Dahmer so this will not be surprise. For me the key is how the film has been directed as well as how it deals with the motivations of all those involved which gives a clue as to almost everyone’s decision making, and it is a period piece which would normally mean a large budget, which this movie did not have. The deliberate, steady pace of this film underpins the frustration that is felt by not only Jeffrey Dahmer, but indeed the rest of his family as they all struggle to not only deal with their own lives but with each other, this is not a happy family that do not communicate with each other at all, with the central issue being Dahmer’s mothers mental issues that take their toll on the entire family. This is coupled and exacerbated by the vast amount of time Dahmer is able to spend by himself and his adolescent yearnings that he has no clue how to deal with. The director in my mind does not shy away from the role that Dahmers family played in his creation as a killer and not just a confused teenager, which I am sure many people will understand.
The film begins in 1974; Jeffrey Dahmer is a high school freshman living in Bath, Ohio, with his parents, Lionel and Joyce, and his little brother, Dave. For a hobby, Jeffrey collects dead animals that he dissolves to the bones using chemicals provided by his father, who is a chemist. This hobby is initiated by his obsessive interest in how animals are “fitted together”.
In 1978, Lionel trashes Jeffrey’s collection of bones and orders him to make friends at school. During school, Jeffrey imitates spasms, clears his backpack, and makes loud noises, catching the attention of aspiring artist John “Derf” Backderf and his friends. Jeffrey inspires Derf to draw him in various situations; drawings that would later form Derf’s graphic novel My Friend Dahmer. Derf and his friends form the “Dahmer Fan Club,” using Jeffrey for a variety of pranks such as sneaking him in every club yearbook photo. Meanwhile, Joyce starts relapsing into chronic mental illness, leading to increasingly bitter fights between her and Lionel. To cope, Jeffrey turns to drinking heavily, and begins killing animals himself. From these points we follow Jeffrey on his road to a breakdown that drives him toward the life he will eventually have, with the movie ending on his first time killing a hitcher, although we do not see this onscreen.
“My Friend Dahmer” would not be a success without a lead actor that could not only understand the person his is portraying but could also offer a performance that was at once menacing but also innocent as well, in actor Ross Lynch who is relatively unknown they have found someone who is able to this and more. Lynch is believable in his part having to not only be a presence onscreen but has to almost play a few characters as he shows different faces to different people in his life, not only that but he has to be incredibly physical as well. The other two actors that are worth mentioning are Alex Wolff as Derf Backderf and Anne Heche as Jeffrey’s mother, both play their parts expertly with enough differentiation within each performance to make them extremely watchable. Heche is one of those actors who has been around for such a long time as well as appearing in so many different parts that it is easy to overlook how good an actor she is but here we are reminded. Wolff on the other hand is a relative newcomer but has proven he is exceptionally gifted with his role in this years “Hereditary” (2018) to prove that point.
This film is exactly the type of character study that should be produced when looking at serial killers as it shows another side of them as well not reducing them to what we have seen for the past five decades which is the slash and burn movie, that not only denigrates the victims but in most cases elevates the killers. As this has been generated by someone that new Dahmer before, or as he become a killer we are viewing that person at least once removed as well as objectively, or as much as can be considering we are aware of who he will ultimately become and what he will do.
I for one was surprised by how this movie was constructed as well as the effect it had on me, I could at least begin to understand how Dahmer was created although I do not excuse this or forgive his actions as he still committed them and I for one believe he knew what he was doing. This is a very film and one I would recommend although it does contain scenes that may disturb.
“My Friend Dahmer” is out now on DVD.