My Friend Dahmer

Review by Elena Lazic @elazic

Directed by

Marc Meyers

Starring

Alex Wolff Anne Heche Ross Lynch

Anticipation.

Another irresponsible movie about a serial killer?

Enjoyment.

From mild ennui to utter terror and sorrow. Amazing.

In Retrospect.

A unique entry into the serial killer movie genre, and one of the best.

The early years of the man dubbed the ‘Milwaukee Cannibal’ make for a compelling character study.

At first glance, Marc Meyers’ My Friend Dahmer looks like another serial killer movie playing into our morbid fascination with these incomprehensible figures. Set during the months leading up to notorious killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s first murder, the film seems to promise an ‘explanation’ for his actions.

Sure enough, Meyers faithfully reproduces known details of Dahmer’s youth, in what can feel like little more than an adaptation of the ‘early life’ section of his Wikipedia profile. Raised by a mother with mental health issues and a father who did the best he could, Dahmer was unpopular at school, an awkward teen who chose to dissect roadkill rather than socialise with his classmates.

Things get more interesting when Dahmer abruptly finds himself with three new friends, including the easy-going John Backderf (played by the transcendent Alex Wolff), the boy who went on to write a graphic novel upon which the film is based. Far from pursuing sordid fame with juicy stories about the killer’s youth, Backderf’s work is animated by a need to grapple with a nagging sense of remorse: did his treatment of Dahmer contribute to his becoming a killer? Was there anything he could have done to stop him?

Dahmer’s new friends do not appear in a particularly positive light. Their interest in him does not stem from genuine concern or sympathy. Rather, the weirdo attracts their attention when he simulates cerebral palsy in class, a disturbing joke which the kids latch onto as a last rebellious prank before college. They soon nickname this type of class-time disruption as ‘doing a Dahmer.’

Following the boy, we are powerless witnesses to his frustration when he ultimately fails to get the sympathy he craves. His friends push the joke too far and then abandon him, and Dahmer’s sense of alienation is a deeply relatable example of adolescent emotion. We’ve all felt how sadness can take on an existential dimension in the summer months, and when Jeffrey finds himself home alone in the middle of a warm afternoon while everyone else is preparing for graduation with their family, it is difficult not to feel his heartbreak.

But empathy has its limits. When Dahmer decides to turn his resentment into violence – and it is presented as a decision, not an impulse – we cannot follow him there. The pain we felt for his hopelessness becomes the sorrow of knowing that a kind word or gesture might have delayed his crimes, but not stopped them.

This profound sadness is the bedrock of a growing sense of fear, which reaches fever pitch intensity in an impressively executed set piece near the end of the film. After not speaking to him for weeks, Backderf offers Dahmer a ride back to his house, one last encounter before he goes to college and forever out of his friend’s life. Almost unbearably terrifying, the confrontation restores to Dahmer the stomach-churning dread and misery that reading about serial killers often induces, but watching movies about them rarely does.

Although My Friend Dahmer does not resolve the impossible question of ‘nature vs nurture’, it approaches it with a humanity that is too often missing from such stories.

Published 30 May 2018

Tags: Anne Heche Marc Meyers Ross Lynch

Anticipation.

Another irresponsible movie about a serial killer?

Enjoyment.

From mild ennui to utter terror and sorrow. Amazing.

In Retrospect.

A unique entry into the serial killer movie genre, and one of the best.

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