Starring Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Anne Heche, Dallas Roberts
Directed by Marc Meyers
Distributed by FilmRise
Crafting a horror film around a killer is old hat, but when the murderer is based on an actual serial killer there is a fine line to walk. Presenting a factual account of crimes allows a film to be both informative and entertaining, but filmmakers should be cognizant of making the films too sensational. It can be easy to hear names like Bundy or Gacy and visualize them as representations of Michael or Jason, but with these real names come real victims and making a film that exaggerates or twists the lore of these killers is in extremely poor taste. I’m not the type to get offended much, if ever, but when numerous families are doubtlessly still affected by murders committed within the past, say, 50 years by any of these idolized murderers it just strikes me as crass. Take the upcoming The Haunting of Nicole Brown Simpson (2019) – need I say more?
But I digress because the film in question here, My Friend Dahmer (2017), is a gallows humor glimpse into the making of a serial killer, the infamous Milwaukee Cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer. It’s a film that humanizes a man seen as inhuman, and it elicits feelings of sympathy and grave concern as we go on a high school journey with one awkward individual. The story comes from a 2012 graphic novel of the same name, written and illustrated by John “Derf” Backderf, and while it sounds questionable to fantasize Dahmer’s early days in comic form here’s the thing: Backderf went to high school with Dahmer, and he used to sketch him all those years ago, so suddenly something that sounds like a weird joke attains veracity.
Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is a loner who prefers to spend his spare time in an outdoor shed in the woods, dissolving roadkill with acid, instead of interacting with any of his schoolmates. His parents, Lionel (Dallas Roberts) and Joyce (Anne Heche), are too focused on their own marital problems to pay any attention to what young Jeffrey is doing. Joyce was recently released from a mental hospital and she is anything but fully cured. Jeffrey’s only acquaintance on campus is a gay student who is obvious enough to draw unwanted attention from bullies, which in turn pushes away Jeffrey. Lionel uncovers Jeffrey’s skeletal museum and dismantles it, telling his son to make friends at school and develop more accepted hobbies. Due to his lack of social graces, Jeffrey takes to “spazzing out” in class and causing his classmates to crack up at the sheer insanity of his actions. A few of them, led by Dahmer’s only semi-close friend, Derf (Alex Wolff), decide to form the “Dahmer Fan Club”, which is a vanity cover for their true intentions: to use Jeffrey as a tool to prank and annoy students, teachers, and citizens alike.
During all of this, Jeffrey continues to have fantasies about “seeing what’s inside” of animals in addition to a recurring fantasy involving a local jogger and physician, Dr. Matthews (Vincent Kartheiser). Jeffrey goes so far as to fake illness just to see the doctor; a trip that ends embarrassingly when Jeffrey’s true intentions rise up. He continues killing animals, slaughtering local pets and creating a skeletal shrine hidden deep within the woods. Jeffrey begins drinking heavily as his home life deteriorates further, driving both of his parents past the brink, alienating him from his friends, and putting himself on the fast track to murder.
All praise goes to Ross Lynch for imbuing his performance with so many nuances and human characteristics, errors and laudable attributes, making Dahmer a sick son of a bitch you can understand. Lynch plays Dahmer as a mix between Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr) from Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) and Ed Gein. As with most serial killers Dahmer is a complex person, aware of the severity of his actions while at the same time nearly powerless to quell his urges. Because he is so socially inept he comes across as blissfully unaware that showing off rotten cats or slicing open a fish to see what’s inside isn’t something most people find appealing. If anything, it immediately alienates them. Jeffrey is checked out of life in most respects, with all of his devotion given to his addiction. Lynch is able to make Dahmer more of a tragic figure than the media suggests, and while nothing can ever excuse his behavior a story like this provides a strong foundation for how he became a meek monster.
Those in the know will pick up on a few Easter eggs peppered throughout the film. During a family dinner early in the movie, Jeffrey complains about his brother taking too much turkey because he “likes the dark meat”. Indeed. Dahmer’s homosexuality is strongly suggested and thinly veiled, but the film never makes it overt because, frankly, he never indulged until he began killing. An uncomfortable scene between Dahmer and the black star athlete he’s forced to share a room with during a school trip provides similar foreshadowing.
The film doesn’t open with a “true story” title card, and although Derf was a childhood acquaintance of Dahmer’s he likely wouldn’t have had a detailed understanding of his home life or personal time. I’m sure the filmmakers have pieced together these events based on Dahmer’s own recollections, as well as those of his parents, so despite being an origin story of sorts it doesn’t offer up any real conclusions. This movie isn’t trying to explain every facet of Dahmer’s psyche, nor does it attempt to delve deeply into the psychology of his actions. My Friend Dahmer, as suggested by the title, is a view into the last couple troubling years of a budding serial killer, who made a few tenuous friendships, but ultimately carried on his own path toward horrific personal satisfaction.
Digital filmmaking has come a long way from the nascent days and the photography of this 2.35:1 1080p image is proof positive. It may not be film, but what this picture does offer is a pristine visual window, with exceptional detailing and a firm grasp on delivering real-world textures. Colors look lively, although sometimes the black levels look a bit flat and hazy. There isn’t a great sense of depth but the scope aspect ratio does allow for some gorgeous shots of the Ohio woodlands – and in this instance, the filmmakers actually shot in the town of Bath, Ohio. In fact, they nearly shot at Dahmer’s old high school, Revere High, but the offer was rejected. A few shots here and there lose slight focus, but overall this is a sharp visual presentation.
Audio comes in two varieties both, sadly, lossy – English Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1 surround sound. Despite not being lossless, the sound is clear and balanced, with much of the mix being driven by dialogue. Scoring is minimal and when it does kick in expect to hear a somber and sympathetic soundtrack, nothing brash. Rear activity is limited to adding a bit of ambiance, nothing too enveloping. Subtitles are available in English SDH.
The paltry selection of extra features includes a three-minute Interview with Ross Lynch, along with a behind-the-scenes slideshow (which, again, is extremely brief) and the theatrical trailer in HD.
- Interview with Ross Lynch
- Behind-the-Scenes Slideshow
- Official Theatrical Trailer
This film manages to humanize a man synonymous with cannibalism without glorifying his misdeeds. Ross Lynch delivers a strong performance filled with subtleties and psychotic flourishes. Dark as the subject matter may be, this is a bizarre take on formative years filled with pitch-black humor and distressing signs of bigger things to come.