How do we deal with the stories of those who do terrible, terrible things? As a culture, we’re fascinated by mass murderers and serial killers - to the point of morbid obsession - and the inherent theatricality of these figures makes them obvious for dramatisation. But should we be exploiting the actual deaths of innocent people for our entertainment? Should we be mythologising these figures of intense violence, sometimes even sympathising with them? To make them the heroes of their stories feels uncomfortable, but to make them monsters removes them of their humanity, which is often what is most frightening about them. All these questions hang in the air around Marc Meyers’ film ‘My Friend Dahmer’, a portrait of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer as a teenager that refuses to peddle in morbidity and delves into the confused shadows of his past.
The film is adapted from the graphic novel memoir by Derf Backderf, recounting his experiences in the late 70s as a teenager (Alex Wolff, ‘Patriots Day’, ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’), and his friendship with young Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch). While the book works from Derf’s point of view, Meyers (also screenwriter) shifts the POV to Dahmer himself, using further research into his childhood to paint a portrait of a young troubled mind in the process of collapse, his relationship with his warring parents Joyce (Anne Heche) and Lionel (Dallas Roberts), his fascination with life and death, and his emerging homosexuality.
The details of Dahmer’s crimes are unimaginably horrific, but Meyers wisely never addresses them. Instead, he constructs the film as a teenage coming-of-age drama, albeit where the "coming-of-age" is a process of destruction rather than construction, and we watch as all the pieces fall into place for the man Dahmer will eventually become. The result is a deeply haunting, unsettling and unexpectedly moving film, one that makes all the right decisions at almost every turn. It never seeks to find answers for what turns a man into a serial killer, instead examining the questions and idiosyncrasies around Dahmer. He is the definition of a wallflower, someone so nondescript that he easily fades into the background, ignored and forgotten. We catch him at a major turning point in his life, the last few years of high school, where he attempts to step into the mainstream with his classmates, only to find it as confusing and dangerous as the more troubled path calling him from afar. Meyers’ approach is one of delicacy and consideration, avoiding exploitation at all cost and allowing the character of Dahmer the room to breathe and develop, and as an audience we are helpless, left to watch this broken kid hurtle towards his terrible future. In that sense, ‘My Friend Dahmer’ works as a tragedy, one where the end is inevitable and unavoidable, and yet the film never asks us to feel sorry for Dahmer. In his introduction to the book, Derf writes, "Pity him, but don’t empathise with him", and this is the guiding principle that makes Meyers’ film ultimately a truly remarkable one. It’s a hard balancing act to achieve, but it becomes a vital one in order for the film to succeed thematically, dramatically and emotionally.
The craft is impeccable, evoking the texture and sounds of the late 70s more authentically than most films. It’s a deeply claustrophobic one, where the pre-internet lives of teenagers are defined entirely by the community they live in. The film was shot, not only in Bath, Ohio where Dahmer and Derf went to school, but even shoots in Dahmer’s childhood home. What could have been a morbid detail too far ends up shaping a lot about the character, with so much about Dahmer defined by the geography of the house and the woods and infrastructure around it. Daniel Katz’s cinematography is considered and beautifully composed, the editing from Jamie Kirkpatrick, considerate and sharp as a tack. Even moving at a careful pace it does, the film holds you in its grip, the tension slowly tightening as Dahmer’s grasp on himself starts to buckle. Sequences that could have been obvious origin markers instead reveal intense confusion, sadness and anger in not just this young man, but the young people and the adults around him. ‘My Friend Dahmer’ feels like a film constantly in the verge of eruption, and how it holds you in that state for its entire duration is both exquisite and ultimately devastating.
‘My Friend Dahmer’ feels like a film constantly in the verge of eruption, and how it holds you in that state for its entire duration is both exquisite and ultimately devastating.
At the heart of the film is the extraordinary performance of Ross Lynch as Dahmer. He handles the impossible demands of the character with skill and humanity, and never falls into the trap of playing the man he will become. His performance feels immediate, in constant motion, growing and organic, a total collapse behind his baby-faced stoicism, and a physical embodiment that goes beyond imitation. That the film has as much heart and soul as it does is so much down to Lynch’s performance, one that establishes him as a actor to watch very closely. All of the ensemble cast do a sterling job, especially Heche and Roberts, who find a necessary complexity of Joyce and Lionel to prevent them from being simply an answer to Dahmer’s psychosis. The same can be said of Wolff, Tommy Nelson and Harrison Holzer as the "friends" around Dahmer, themselves in constant flux about how they feel about not only Dahmer himself, but their perception and treatment of him.
Ultimately, this portrait of Jeffrey Dahmer is a portrait of the lonely, the forgotten. We aren’t given any defining answer to his origin as a serial killer, no pithy fact to rattle off. What we see is a boy lost and afraid, of himself and his growing and troubling desires, and how those around him never thought to ask what was going on behind his distant stare. It’s a portrait of the abyss of loneliness, and how that abyss can swallow you whole. ‘My Friend Dahmer’ is a remarkable film, one that has sat with me ever since, one that left me deeply troubled in the very way I hoped it would. It offers not shock and horror, but something all the more human, all the more affecting and all the more haunting. It's already one of my favourite films of the year.