‘My Friend Dahmer’ A Sizzling, Slow Burn

by Warren Cantrell on November 10, 2017

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

Serial killer movies are a tough sell. When they work (Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, Psycho, Zodiac), it is often because the predator acts as the antagonist to the pursuing party’s hero(s), which allows the audience to root for the lead(s), and against the monster. When serial killer films focus on the bad guy or gal, and invite audiences along for the ride, it can be rough. Whoever the lead, even if they are a bad guy/anti-hero, automatically assumes the role of a sympathetic party since this person is the audience’s guide for the story. Only a handful of movies have pulled this trick off, but My Friend Dahmer, opening today at Screenland Armour, is one of them.

The movie follows infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) during his senior year in high school, when all the different strands of his personal life began to fray. Shy, emotionally repressed, and socially awkward, Jeffrey doesn’t have a lot of friends, and spends his free time collecting road kill and dissolving the carcasses in acid. And while My Friend Dahmer doesn’t showcase a single homicide, it sets the table for a young man who would go on to murder and mutilate 17 innocent victims: asking the audience to draw its own conclusions regarding what makes a monster.

When Jeffrey’s father encourages his son to be more social and pursue interests beyond his morbid taxidermy obsession, he begins to act out. As a senior in high school who is already considered somewhat weird, these attention-grabbing outbursts just cement Jeffrey’s social standing in the school as a class clown, and acquaint him with a group of new friends who see an opportunity in the antics. Led by fellow senior John (Alex Wolff), these three new buddies convince Jeffrey to be their on-call agent of chaos, to act as the catalyst for the pranks they want to play. Jeffrey goes along with it because it represents a social connection and sense of belonging within a group, and for a time, it seems to make the young man happy.

Yet things aren’t going very well for Jeffrey otherwise, as his burgeoning homosexuality and the deterioration of his parents’ marriage weighs heavily on him. Director Marc Meyers shrewdly side-steps any attempt to assign a root cause to the monstrosities that would transpire to any one thing, for Jeffrey and his evil could never be diagnosed. If it were as easy as identifying one trait or experience as the defining cause behind serial murder, sexual assault, cannibalism, and necrophilia, then there would be a Dahmer law on the books.

The truth is (and My Friend Dahmer seems to subscribe to this), no one will ever know what drove Jeffrey Dahmer to do the things that he did: the man himself didn’t even understand. What Meyers’ movie does well is give a person a front row seat to the budding moments of a weed that would grow into a sprawling disease of humanity. What one finds is that Jeffrey Dahmer’s teenage years in the late 1970s weren’t significantly different than what young adults go through today. Peer pressure, a desire to fit in, and insecurities about the adult that is beginning to take shape permeate every square inch of that existence, and if underlying problems already exist beneath the surface, then there’s a recipe for trouble brewing.

For his part, Jeffrey Dahmer had his fair share of underlying problems, including a mother with mental health issues, a fascination with animal mutilation that went back to his childhood, and an unmistakable sexual orientation that didn’t sit well with 1970s small town America. Meyers allows all of this to breathe in his methodical, patient approach to My Friend Dahmer. Never building towards any one moment or event, the film moves like a snake, seemingly without any means of propulsion, yet ever-onward regardless.

At the center of all this is the performance by Lynch, who approaches the role as an all-encompassing skin that he seems to wear over himself. The actor’s hunched over posture compliments his gait: a brutish sort of shuffle that doesn’t speak to any kind of will or energy. This is not an animated or inspired individual, and except for the moments when he acts out for attention, all the life in the young man seems to be pushed down and bottled up. Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts are also magnificent as Mrs. And Mr. Dahmer, who are so wrapped up in the sniping rear-guard actions of their failing marriage that they barely have time to be parents to their kids.

As My Friend Dahmer moves into its third and final act, the audience begins to see Jeffrey for what he is: a deadly freight train with too much momentum to stop. Sure, social acceptance at school, more attention from his parents, a welcoming environment for his sexuality, or counseling to address any of these issues might have made a difference, or staved off the tragedies that would unfold later on, yet this was never going to happen. Dahmer was the product of his time and environment, and for better or worse, he is a part of the human story now, warts and all.

My Friend Dahmer is a slow burning examination of pure evil in its larval state. There are more questions than answers in the movie, yet they get at the heart of what it means to be a functioning member of society, and how even the best among us can grow up with a monster in our midst and never know it.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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