Jeffrey Dahmer was an infamous serial killer who murdered at least seventeen men between 1978 and 1991. This morbid fact isn’t a very fun review opening, sure, but this isn’t a very pleasant movie. Written and directed by Marc Meyers, the film is based on a graphic novel of the same name by famed cartoonist, John Backderf. Backderf went to high school with Dahmer, and befriended him shortly before their graduation; incidentally, right before Dahmer started killing. The filmmakers do not flinch while showing Dahmer’s fatalistic descent. His behavior escalates from picking up roadkill, to killing and mutilating animals, fantasizing about murder and necrophilia, and lastly his first murder. My Friend Dahmer seeks to humanize and understand its notorious title character, while never condoning his actions.
My Friend Dahmer paints a damning picture of ignorance, avoidance, and neglect by the people who should have been this troubled youth’s support system: his family, ‘friends,’ and teachers. The film posits that Dahmer is a sad, anti-social, and deeply troubled young man who could have been identified as a risk and gotten the serious help he needed. Instead, he’s ignored or mistreated by everyone in his life that should have cared for his wellbeing. The adults in this film are either absent or absent-minded, too preoccupied with their own problems to notice Dahmer’s odd behavior. The teachers at the high school don’t seem to care at all about the wellbeing of any of their kids. “The teachers are zombies,” Backderf says to Dahmer at one point in the film. Indeed, Dahmer draws a homicide scene chalk outline around a girl without arousing the suspicion of a hungover teacher during the middle of class. The few times the teachers are shown interacting with the students it’s often to deliver derisive comments or abrasive warnings to leave the school grounds.
Dahmer’s parents, though, may be the worst authority figures in the film. Despite being a presence in Dahmer’s life, they hardly seem to matter at all. They bicker and fight throughout the entire movie, and their marriage eventually falls apart. Dahmer’s father makes a couple of half-hearted attempts to reach out to his son, most notably taking away his creative outlet: a creepy shed where Dahmer collects roadkill and dissolves the animal corpses in acid. His attempts are severely misguided and he makes almost no effort after that, thinking a couple of gifts and a few choice words to his son will make him a better father. Dahmer’s mother, on the other hand, can barely give him the time of day, she’s too preoccupied with not being sent back to a mental institution while trying to get custody of her youngest son. Neither parent can see their son’s troubled behavior and they don’t seem to notice the bottles of liquor missing, nor the fact that Dahmer’s drunk all the time. So preoccupied are they with fighting and their divorce, that by the end, Dahmer is forgotten and he’s left living at their home alone for some time.
Dahmer, despite his extreme antisocial behavior, is actually befriended by John Backderf and his clique. He manages to do so through painfully obvious cries for help and attention. These include flailing wildly, acting as if he’s having epileptic seizures, in school and in public. No one helps Dahmer or comes to his aid when he ‘spazzes out,’ they either avoid him or simply laugh. Dahmer does this because it's the closest thing to a connection with other people he has, but in truth, these episodes are humiliating and he hates them. Dahmer resorts to drinking heavily just to get through school each day. His classmates notice, “he reeks [of alcohol],” but don’t do anything about his behavior. Later Derf, (John Backderf) comments on Dahmer’s excessive drinking after he sees Dahmer finishes a six pack in his car, but still doesn’t put the pieces together. To be fair, Dahmer’s peers are only high schoolers, but his odd behavior goes unnoticed, unpunished, or unheeded until it's way too late.
I’ve yet to truly mention the unsettling protagonist man himself, Jeffrey Dahmer, who is portrayed marvelously by Ross Lynch. Lynch gives an understated, almost wooden performance but really nails the character’s awkward behaviors and mannerisms. Lynch’s weird, stilted, but humanizing performance is the glue that holds the entire character study together. Dahmer is withdrawn and walks with a slouch as his hands droop in front of him. He speaks in quiet, almost monotone utterances with a face of stone and cold but curious eyes. As I mentioned, Dahmer earnestly tries to make connections with people, he just doesn’t know how and doesn’t seem to understand why it's so important too or even necessary. The things that fascinate him: bones, the insides of living organisms, and corpses, repulse and disturb people.
My Friend Dahmer is a sobering film about failure. The failure of everyone around Dahmer to help him. The filmmakers know Dahmer will become a disturbed monster, and they never endorse him or his actions. Their goal is to understand how he got to such a frightening point, and why no one seemed to notice the obvious warning signs emanating from his troubling adolescent behavior. Who knows if he could have been helped, or if his behavior could have been stopped, curtailed, or changed? Someone should have tried.
TLDR: My Friend Dahmer is a tragic character study that humanizes a budding serial killer without sanctioning the behavior of its infamous subject. 3.5/5 Stars
-Edited By Austin Toner