My Friend Dahmer Presents A Unique Portrait Of The Infamous Serial Killer
by Ben Martin
In the annals of crime history, certain names will remain infamous, particularly when it comes to serial killers. Among such names are: Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, Aileen Wuornos, Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez and of course, Jeffrey Dahmer. All of the murderers mentioned above have had their biopics, most of these getting big-screen releases, that is except Dahmer. That all changed with the recently released, My Friend Dahmer. Before we dive into the film, however, here’s a little rundown of Dahmer for any readers who may be unfamiliar:
Jeffrey Dahmer’s aberrant activities began in his adolescence. He became fascinated with killing and cutting open animals. After examining them, he would preserve their bones with various chemicals. This odd hobby went on for years, continuing throughout high-school. Following his graduation in 1978, Dahmer killed his first victim, Steven Mark Hicks. Dahmer had picked the hitchhiking Hicks up, with the incentive of partying. After hours of doing so, Dahmer eventually bludgeoned Hicks to death. After which, he dissected and disposed of Hicks’ corpse through using chemicals to dissolve it; just as he had with animals in the past. Following this, Dahmer went through what is referred to as a “Cool-down period,” In other words, he committed no murders during such time. Instead, Dahmer did a stint in the army as a medic until 1981. Six years later, Dahmer would resume killing. In total, between 1978-1991, he killed 17 men or boys. Thankfully, these heinous crimes stopped when he was sentenced to life in prison in 1992. A short two years later, Jeffrey Dahmer was killed in prison by a fellow inmate.
Unlike most serial killer biopics, My Friend Dahmer takes a different approach. As opposed to telling Dahmer’s life-story and covering all his crimes, this film examines just the eventual killer’s high-school years; as depicted in John “Derf” Backderf’s graphic novel of the same name. Derf attended high-school with Dahmer and was one of his few “friends.” The film begins with a disenfranchised young Dahmer. At home, his parents (played by Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts, respectively) are constantly arguing. On the rare occasions they aren’t at each other’s throats; they’re on their son’s case; always telling him that he needs to make friends.
After his father tears down the shed that serves as his son’s dissection lab, the teenager has no other choice. Thus, to make friends, Dahmer finds a way to make himself stand out. He becomes a class clown by doing a mean-spirited impression of a local interior decorator who has Cerebral Palsy. The tasteless impersonation eventually garners the lonely Dahmer a small group of friends, led by Derf Backderf (Alex Wolff). Sadly though, these boys only hang out with Dahmer to exploit his talent for tasteless “comedy.” Alas, that doesn’t entertain the crew forever and Dahmer soon turns to alcohol to cope.
While I’m familiar with Jeffrey Dahmer, I was not familiar with his high-school life or Derf’s graphic novel. This film paints a unique and tragic portrait of the infamous serial killer. Whereas most serial killer biopics focus on the monsters that these killers are, My Friend Dahmer focuses on what made him such a monster. Don’t get me wrong, Jeffrey Dahmer was a genuinely horrible excuse for human being. In fact, he could easily be looked at as a soulless monster a nothing more.
However, this film is much more complex than that. I fully expected to feel a little sympathy for Dahmer, based on the subject matter. Surprisingly though, as the film progressed, I couldn’t help but feel a lot of sympathy and even a little empathy. While I’m certain some events were changed for dramatic effect, there’s no doubt this depiction of a teenage Dahmer was accurate. It’s clear that no one showed him any real love and care. Furthermore, they didn’t pay enough attention to see that he was mentally ill. Perhaps if they had paid attention or if anyone had just loved him, what followed could have been prevented. To Derf’s credit, his screenplay is careful not to condone what Dahmer would go on to do, but to try and understand why. To the author’s credit, he doesn’t show himself in a flattering light. Just like every other person, he mistreated Dahmer.
Adding to this film’s impact are the visual and thematic elements that director Marc Myers (Harvest) brings to it. Since the film spans from 1974-78, the cinematography is reminiscent of that period in film. Much like 70s cinema classics Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The Deer Hunter (1978), this movie is slightly drained of color and a little flat. Such a style evokes the draining and depressing nature of the narrative.
The direction seems to be straightforward and subdued. Thanks to this, the cast is able to steal the show. Most notably, the young actor who portrays Jeffrey Dahmer, Ross Lynch. I was only vaguely acquainted with his previous work on The Disney Channel. (Due to my years as a youth counselor, I’m regrettably familiar with such programming.) Lynch’s performance in this film is something entirely different, as he completely embodies Dahmer. His work here blew me away, and a have no doubt he has a long and versatile career ahead of him that goes far beyond being a Disney kid. Personally, I hope that he will gain some recognition this awards season.
If you have any interest in the subject matter, I can’t recommend My Friend Dahmer highly enough. Heck, even if you don’t, this picture still works as a high-school drama. This movie is without a doubt one of the best and most original true crime biopics I’ve ever seen. Granted, it did leave me feeling utterly empty, with little faith in humanity. So, be warned that it will possibly make you feel the same way. Then again, in my estimation, that is the point of this film. To make us think more about how we treat people. Also, I feel it wants to remind us to be more aware of mental illness and not disregard people who suffer from it. Not to sound preachy, but should you choose to see this film, please do the following. Remember to treat people well and show them some TLC when you can. You never know what positive impact this could have. This movie proves that doing the opposite can have a severely adverse outcome.
MY FRIEND DAHMER IS NOW PLAYING IN LIMITED RELEASE!