Jeffrey Dahmer murdered 17 men and boys in the Midwest United States between 1978 and 1991 before being captured and incarcerated. He would become one of America’s most infamous serial killers. This is the story before that story. Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is an awkward teenager struggling to make it through high school with a family life in ruins. He collects roadkill, fixates on a neighborhood jogger (Vincent Kartheiser), and copes with his unstable mother (Anne Heche) and well-intentioned father (Dallas Roberts). He begins to act out at school, and his goofball antics win over a group of band-nerds who form The Dahmer Fan Club, headed by Derf Backderf (Alex Wolff). But this camaraderie can’t mask his growing depravity. Approaching graduation, Jeff spirals further out of control, inching ever closer to the madness that was destined to overtake him. ‘My Friend Dahmer’ is written and directed by Marc Meyers, and is rated R for for disturbing images, adult language, teen drug use, drinking and sexual content, and for brief nudity.
‘My Friend Dahmer’ is a cautionary tale about observation. Through the eyes of those who knew him best, Jeffrey Dahmer was failed, living without the kind of love and acceptance that every single person living needs to survive. He was failed by his friends, family, teachers, school board, and all around community that ignored the signs of something much more powerful lurking beneath the quiet exterior of a kid just looking for attention. The one constant that rang true throughout this film is the cancer of loneliness that seemed to amplify Jeffrey’s metaphorical voice that was ringing in his head to expose what he was born to eventually become. Because of such, Meyers film feels like the most revealing look into the mind of one of America’s most gruesome serial killers, taking us through the many depositions in and around his tortured life that presented an roarschach test of possible answers for where to point the blame. The most responsible answer is everyone, and it’s in that stance where the film commands its audience to live with your eyes open at all times because the next Jeffrey Dahmer might be right under your nose the whole time.
As a narrative, ‘My Friend Dahmer’ is a bit of a coming of age story with a twist, in that this isn’t just a teenager maturing into what he was born to become, but also into something that terrified everyone else. To be honest, if you’re expecting a bloodbath of epic levels here, you will sadly be mistaken. ‘My Friend Dahmer’ isn’t fully a horror movie, but instead a psychological spin that puts the scattered pieces together and allows us to see the bigger picture from a step back. There are plenty of examples of broken relationships all around the boy that all collide with him on this demolition course that is lacking of any kind of intimacy for him to crutch the pressure onto. Because of this, I found it to be an entertaining sit in spades even if the entirety of the script is hearsay. Because the writer, Bergdorf, is a central character in the film, we rely on him to faithfully color in the lines of mystery for our own satisfaction. The problem is that Bergdorf himself wasn’t in but maybe forty percent of the scenes that are shown in the film, so there is that level of doubt from his script that makes you wonder just how authentic Dahmer’s solo scenes are to the story. With that said, Bergdorf as a writer feels like a valuable piece to the spectrum not only because he accomplishes the menacing presence of a young Dahmer, but also because he juggles it with this light-hearted atmosphere of teenage hormones humor that fills the air until the cloud of Jeffrey’s alienation overtakes the production whole.
For my enjoyment of being a local who lives only fifteen minutes from where these events took place, Meyers decision to shoot in and around Bath Township is one that pays great dividends to immersing yourself in the proper environment. This presents an extra added glee of being able to point out certain roads and buildings that still stand to this day that out of state audiences won’t fully grasp, giving it a surreal feeling full circle because these are the very same halls and roads that the killer once walked. How many biopics can confidently say that they shot in the exact same house that the original story took place? But because I have visited the former Dahmer house on many occasions and can see it fruitfully displayed on camera, I can appreciate the speculated difficulty that went into crafting such a solid truth to this picture. Most of the names remain untouched in the script, and the only change that I saw was that of the school buses that say Summit Township, instead of Bath Township.
The production does a mostly solid job of keeping out of the television movie-of-the-week category that can sometimes doom the immersion into a true story. The cinematography from Daniel Katz omits a kind of cheap aura to its shot selections, but I think this does wonders in feeding into the very look and fashions of 1978 that are depicted all over this film. On that ground, nothing felt outdated or out of place for the era that the story took place in, and I value a film even more that can paint such a picture without it feeling obvious or forced. What I mean is that sometimes a film can drive home a series of songs repeatedly or throw in a bunch of posters of 70’s pop culture to constantly remind you, but ‘My Friend Dahmer’ feels more confident in establishing these grounds more so in its visual compass instead of its physical properties, and it’s a decision that I feel goes miles in determining the kinds of hands-on decision making from the proper people without the interruption of Hollywood big wigs not willing to take the time to understand the character or the world that envelopes him.
As for performances, the majority are solid, but the overdone line reads of some extras were painfully obvious on a few occasions. These are nothing more than the occasional teacher or popular student characters who are clearly reading lines for the first time in their early careers, and thankfully don’t stick around for the long haul. What I can say positively begins with Ross Lynch giving a stirring revelation as the title character. Lynch commands Dahmer with the kind of patience and transfixing movements that faithfully keep your eyes on him at all times. What is so chilling about his performance is the cold stare from his facial reactions through any kind of atmosphere taking place around him, that hint that he’s got a dirty secret that only he knows. In addition to Lynch, Dallas Roberts was also good as Dahmer’s exhausted father Lionel, who feels like the last chance for Jeffrey in keeping him afloat. Lionel is the character who I reasoned with the most in this broken home kind of family, and the few sensitive scenes that he shares with Jeffrey feel like that warm breath that is needed in getting us through some very haunting chain of events that our young protagonist of sorts deals with on an almost daily basis.
THE VERDICT – ‘My Friend Dahmer’ is a cut above the rest in terms of credible real-life biopics that choose to get a step closer psychologically instead of settling for a Wikipedia summary. Though the film’s speculation can sometimes lead to noticeable patches of dry and direction-less scenes, the majority of Meyers provacative work feels sharp for the dissection. Held tightly by the breakthrough performance of Lynch, as well as the charms of a local familiarity in backdrops, and you have a film that Jeffrey would devilishly eat up.