Jeffery Dahmer’s infamous crimes redefined “serial killer.” These were complex, outrageous, monstrous deeds, reaching a level of vileness that shocked even the most grizzled authorities. He was from Wisconsin, and I grew up not too far from where he committed his worst crimes in the 1980s-1990s. It was too much for people to fully process there, so outrageous that it became almost garishly cartoonish, almost like he wasn’t real, more of an urban myth (in fact, it really creeps me out to keep writing his name, like the Boogeyman is going to appear).
In this new century, sensationalizing horrific true-crime stories and out-sizing news to ridiculous, unreachable proportions has reached a fever pitch. Putting Dahmer’s teenage years onscreen as a documentary in this current climate could have made him even more into a source of morbid entertainment, but because My Friend Dahmer, based on the acclaimed graphic novel by Dahmer’s childhood friend John Backderf, is a narrative biopic, it’s free to go deeper into his heart of darkness than any documentary could ever go, and by doing so, the horror is far more real.
My Friend Dahmer follows Dahmer (Ross Lynch) through his senior year of high school. His habit of pretending to have cerebral palsy to get attention inspires a group of boys (played by Alex Derf, Harrison Holzer, and Tommy Nelson) to create a fan club in his honor, and use him for elaborate pranks (he is so invisible that they put him in every club’s class picture without anyone noticing). Dahmer’s deeply macabre oddity is at first worshiped and fetishized – his habit of doing dark, odd things is viewed as excitingly taboo at first, and he is both pained and thrilled by this objectification.
At home, Jeffrey’s mother (Anne Heche) is devoured by mental illness. His father (Dallas Roberts) eventually leaves, both of them abandoning Jeffery in the house like a neglected houseplant. He also discovers that he is homosexual, and tries desperately to suppress it. The local doctor, Dr. Matthews (Vincent Kartheiser), becomes his first object of real obsession; Dahmer is mortified by getting an erection during a physical, imagines the doctor dead in his bed, and hides in the bushes with a baseball bat during the Matthews’ jogs on a rural road. His fame begins to wear thin when the friends see him act out increasingly terrifying, violent acts, and they begin to regret teasing him. As the days wear on, Dahmer’s sense of alienation grows, relieved only by acting out early horrific crimes.
Avoiding both sympathy, sentimentality, or hype, director Marc Meyers takes on a more ambitious task. Knowing who he grows up to be adds a level of terror that’s often nearly impossible to capture, so Meyers focuses on Dahmer’s psyche over trying to ham up his violent acts. The scares come more from the growing tension of understanding who he is going to become when he graduates as it gets closer to the end, and this is intensified by several scenes of his buddies rough housing like puppies and gushing over their bright futures as Dahmer sits in the corner like death itself.
There is a scene where I wept, and I wasn’t alone in it. This was not out of sympathy for him, but out of the purely visceral pain of watching another person sever himself so profoundly and permanently from the opportunity to turn back from his fate. It’s like watching a real boy transform into a monster, in all its howling horror. Even though I had to go home and take a good long break after My Friend Dahmer, it was one of the best I saw at 2017’s Tribeca Film Festival.