My Friend Dahmer:
An Earnest, Uneasy Origin story
of An American Nightmare
“Is this person famous? Would I know this person?”
It’s often said that serial killers and murderous psychopaths live among us, silently blending in with the rest of the world. And yet, when they’re discovered, there’s the sudden realization that the signs were there all along (they’re loners, they had difficult childhoods, and so on), just waiting to be noticed. All the horrors that have befallen dozens of people, all performed by someone who seems perfectly ordinary – someone you work with, a neighbor, or, in John Backderf’s case, someone you went to highschool with.
It’s this framework that encompasses My Friend Dahmer, written and directed by Marc Meyer and adapted from the semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Backderf. Without excusing his eventual crimes, My Friend Dahmer paints a sympathetic portrait of one of America’s most notorious serial killers, one that doesn’t shy away from the macabre. Indeed, the film is fully aware of Dahmer’s legacy, but it doesn’t let it overshadow his past. And where a journey into Dahmer’s past could easily turn exploitative, Meyer’s film is composed and authentic, born from a desire to create “a portrait of a serial killer as a young boy,” as he explained at the film’s premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. Though stumbling occasionally from plotline to plotline, the film is an engrossing examination Dahmer’s home life, his reputation at school, and the years leading up to his first murder.
But before there was Jeffrey Dahmer, there was Jeff: a teenager from Ohio with a fascination for the way things work. Of course, these things just happen to be dead animals. In the cramped shed behind his house, Jeff performs experiments with acids, a hobby naïvely encouraged by his father (Dallas Roberts), who works at the local chemistry plant. “I like bones,” says Jeff, “It interests me, what’s inside.” Ross Lynch stars as Jeff, making a startling break from past roles in Disney’s Teen Beach Movie and the sitcom Austin & Ally. In contrast to the sunny, upbeat Disney productions, Lynch’s Dahmer is lumbering and sunken over, complete with a bright, blonde mop of hair, oversized glasses, and a haunting dead-eye stare. Far from being campy, Lynch balances the typical anxiety of adolescence while maintaining a foreboding presence in the halls of the high school. He seems, at first blush, like just another face in the crowd, but it’s not difficult to spot the tension hiding just beneath the surface.
Jeff is, in many ways, just like any other teenager: he’s on the tennis team and a member of the school’s marching band. He’s soft-spoken but honest, and you get the sense he’s uncomfortable in his own skin. In many ways, however, he’s different: he collects roadkill, and stalks a local jogger (Vincent Kartheiser) from the bushes on the side of the road. The jogger is a cornerstone in the Dahmer mythos, referenced by Dahmer himself as the subject of a rape fantasy, and the first time he plotted to kill someone. It’s one of the most formative moments of his young life, and considered a catalyst to his subsequent murder spree. Over the course of the film we see Dahmer ogle him from the side of the road several times, each stakeout becoming more and more premeditated. Dahmer’s standing appointment in the woods serves as a grim benchmark for his growing psychosis, and fuels a fixation that results in one of the film’s most chilling and unexpected scenes.
Beyond Dahmer’s slow slide into homicide, however, My Friend Dahmer lacks a unifying plot, and is instead made up of a series of smaller, relatively self-contained events: summer vacation, prom, graduation, and the like. Though these mini-stories help to paint the picture of suburban Ohio in the late 1970s, some feel clunky and irrelevant, and most serve simply as set-ups to showcase how out of touch Dahmer is becoming. While there’s several instances of clever innuendo, some pieces of the dialogue sound too heavy-handed, as if to remind you that, yes, this inelegant teenager will eventually murder seventeen people. At its worst, My Friend Dahmer is too eager and self-aware for its own good.
But at its best, the film holds its card close to the chest, and despite any meandering it takes, the performances are nonetheless engrossing, especially the brilliant performances by Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts as Joyce and Lionel Dahmer, respectively. Though it’s difficult to take your eyes off Lynch, Heche undoubtedly steals every scene she graces as the irreverent and equally troubled mother, a perfect complement to Roberts’ meek, capitulating father.
The film’s greatest achievement is its presentation of Dahmer as both helplessly fragile and menacingly cold. Jeff is constantly revealed in sharp opposites: he’s both visible and invisible, unseen yet unavoidable. Jeff’s erratic behavior catches the eyes of some classmates (featuring Alex Wolff as the teenage Backderf), who bring him into their merry band of misfits. When they realize the limits of Jeff’s self-control (or rather, his lack thereof), they encourage him to spaz out in public for their entertainment, aptly referred to as, “doin’ a Dahmer.”
Jeff, encouraged by their superficial approval, is sent into public spaces and begins to shriek at strangers, flailing his arms around and twitching on the floor. During one of Jeff’s longer stunts, the line between a self-aware parody and his genuine desire for acceptance is blurred, resulting in the disturbing realization that they don’t like him in spite of his strangeness, but rather for it. Whether or not their intentions were good-natured, Jeff learns that he’ll always be the outsider, even among so-called friends.
Though the inner-workings of Jeffrey Dahmer’s mind are something perhaps no one will ever be able to comprehend, it’s not difficult to understand feelings of isolation or turmoil. And while My Friend Dahmer doesn’t attempt to justify his inevitable actions, it appropriately establishes Jeffrey Dahmer as much more than just another face in the crowd, for better or worse.