Serial killer culture is nothing new; a good percentage of our population has a morbid fascination with the most human of monsters and the evil that they do. Stephen King referred to this as “feeding the alligator.” There’s been a growing following for “the killer” since newspapers first covered Jack the Ripper. We exploit the horror and then seek to peel back the onion as a way to better understand what sets some people off. Recently, we’ve seen a rise in media which seeks to understand the killer, with films like Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile digging into Ted Bundy and Netflix’s Mind Hunter delving into various killers of the 70's. We’re getting more of an insight into the people they were and perhaps why their lives became so dark.
That brings us to the 2017 film, My Friend Dahmer, based on the graphic novel/memoir by John Backderf, better known as Derf. Both narratives capture the high school friendship between Derf and a young, pre-murder spree Jeffrey Dahmer, in the late 70's. Both also assume that you know who Dahmer is and what atrocities he’s responsible for.
It’s the year 1978 in rural Ohio. Jeffrey Dahmer, played by Disney Channel’s Ross Lynch, is a senior in high school who doesn’t really have any true friends. He is already deep into a hobby of collecting bones from roadkill at this point. Dahmer’s father, Lionel (Dallas Roberts), demolishes the shed where Dahmer stores his collection. With little social skills, Dahmer acts out with imitation palsy spasms and noises as a way to get attention. This leads to acceptance into a small group of friends led by Backderf, who are fascinated by his outrageous behavior.
Backderf is played by Nickelodeon’s Alex Wolff. This story is just as much about Backderf, who originally sees his new friend as a harmless class clown, and then watches Dahmer’s quirks become more menacing over time. It’s a unique but wise choice, casting two familiar family television actors to play these characters, both who vanish into the characters and add a false sense of innocence to the plot. Lynch is especially adept at being able to depict Dahmer’s growing detachment with a stone-faced expression.
Not exactly billed as a horror film, My Friend Dahmer plays on the tropes of the high school coming of age story, never fully diving into horror territory. Don’t go in expecting a body count or even any on-screen violence. Aside from one scene with a fish and a dream sequence, we don’t see any scenes of Dahmer committing murder as he sinks further into the abyss. We almost have a fully functioning teen comedy, complete with gags, purposefully obnoxious characters, and the colorful language we come to associate with the 70's. However, the combination of Andrew Hollander’s score and the tinted color grading add a foreboding tone that’s hard to ignore.
What really makes the film unique and praiseworthy is the story it chooses to present. We’re given an unbiased look at the person Dahmer used to be. It’s not making a defense for him, but it is critical of his surroundings. We witness, from the beginning, his budding violent urges and closeted desires, but we also get some insights into Dahmer’s well-off but dysfunctional family, including his mentally unstable mother who refuses to take responsibility for her actions and also favors Dahmer’s younger brother and his dismissive father who never takes charge and prefers to just walk away from situations.
The family dynamic is coupled with scenes of Derf and his friends encouraging Dahmer to act out more and more frequently (leading to an isolating scene in a mall that is as disturbing as it is heartbreaking). It creates a sense of empathy in the viewer when you notice nobody is directly asking him what’s on his mind. The film hints that maybe if someone cared, maybe Dahmer’s future could have been different. Slim chance given previous information, but the question is there. We just watch as Dahmer delves into poorly hidden binge drinking and giving into the violence that’s on his mind. By the end, he’s as blank as the autograph page in his yearbook.
The only point where the film becomes true horror is in the film’s subtle climax. After graduation, Derf sees Dahmer for the last time when he spots him walking home at night and offers him a ride. Derf notices blood on Dahmer’s fingers but doesn’t press the issue, and the two just have a conversation about life and where they’re heading now that school is over. Dahmer’s lack of goals and general detachment in the conversation add to the already uneasy feel. They return to Dahmer’s now empty house (his divorced parents now living elsewhere) and Dahmer invites him in for a beer. After hesitating, Derf follows Dahmer inside, but his gut tells him to get out. As he leaves, Dahmer is following him with a bat. Dahmer doesn’t go through with the act, as we’ve seen with previous moments of him hesitating, but Derf does notice as he drives away. It’s very well done suspense that harkens back to another film I’m a fan of, We Need to Talk about Kevin. It’s a scene that shows how this character, that we almost build empathy for, is too far gone, and we accept it.
I thoroughly enjoyed My Friend Dahmer and highly recommend it. I appreciate that it doesn’t take the easy way and exploit the real-life crimes of a sick individual (there’s already 2002’s Dahmer, an early Jeremy Renner vehicle for that), but instead goes for a somber character study. As a film, it has the potential to rise above the rank of just an indie darling. Director Marc Meyers delivers a polished and solid drama that makes us both care for and fear a budding psychopath, which is no easy task to balance. It’s a perfect time to dive into this director’s work, as Meyers’ new feature, We Summon the Darkness, has just released on VOD. My Friend Dahmer is currently up for streaming on Hulu; get out your true crime journals and give it a watch.
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