LFF 2017: My Friend Dahmer Review
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Between 1987 and his eventual capture in 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer raped, murdered, and dismembered 16 men and boys. He displayed various body parts in his apartment and even ate some, earning him the nickname “The Milwaukee Cannibal”. His end came when he was murdered in prison by another inmate in 1994, but what about his start?
In 2012 My Friend Dahmer was published by graphic novelist John “Derf” Backderf, an expansion of a smaller book Backderf self-published in 2002, and was a memoir of his teenage friendship with Dahmer and the various events that led to his first murder in 1978. It is an absorbing, detailed, fascinating, and horrifying read, and one that I highly recommend. This adaptation of that record of the beginnings of human evil, directed by Marc Meyers, flies or falls on the central role of young Dahmer, and a few eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Ross Lynch, a former Disney Channel star, had been cast. However, that jarring juxtaposition actually proves to work in the movie’s favour, giving an extra layer of discomfort in watching someone associated with the squeaky clean image of Disney play one of the most notorious figures of recent American history.
That is not to say that all Lynch brings to the role is meta shock value, because what he does here is phenomenal; a performance all in the little details such as the awkward stiff gait, the near-permanent blank face, and a cold yet compelling quality that means you cannot take your eyes off of him. Teen Dahmer, however, is not a complete monster, not yet, as we see him care about his younger brother and yearn for normality and friendship. It is this yearning that gets him involved in with young Derf (Alex Wolff) and his group of friends who name themselves the Dahmer Fan Club and encourage Jeff’s acting out by means of mock fits and “spazzing” in public. It’s that teenage frustration, to be seen and to matter, which gets lost in the fighting of Jeff’s parents (Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts) and the disinterest of the adults around him. There are brief moments where you wonder if things could have turned out differently, if Jeff had been able to make a firm human connection certain things could have been avoided, but they are snatched away quickly and so those sinister qualities in the young man, including an interest in dissection and a sexual fixation on control and necrophilia, are allowed to fester.
There is no denying that the subject matter of the film is disturbing, but the way it approaches it is low-key. It is a quiet movie, holding on moments to hit things home to make you feel unsettled and leave you shaken. There are times that you find yourself laughing, but it’s a laughter that dissolves quickly into discomfort. This was definitely the right choice in tone, as a more overblown and unrealistic approach would not have fit. There are elements of the original graphic novel that are condensed, putting events that took place over many years, such as Jeff’s experiments on roadkill and alcoholism, into one year; that of Jeff’s final year of high school. It makes sense from a film narrative point of view, but you do lose some of the sense of just how long these dark ingredients were simmering for.
My Friend Dahmer is an effective portrait of a lonely soul who grappled with his demons, but ultimately made the choice to commit some of the worst crimes imaginable. It leaves a chill that will stay with you for some time.