Based on a graphic novel of the same name by Derf (John) Backderf, My Friend Dahmer (2017) traces infamous Wisconsin serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer’s high school years, as chronicled by a former friend. Written and directed by Marc Meyers, this moody and hauntingly subtle film won best picture at Austin Fantastic Fest. Despite competent performances by its cast, My Friend Dahmer fails to leave a lasting impression. It lacked an over-all plot, and the poorly-mixed sound was barely audible.
Jeffrey Dahmer committed his first murder three weeks after graduating high school. As a teen, he coped with his parents’ failing marriage with alcohol abuse and acting out at school, and developed a fascination with death. He went on to kill sixteen people, preying mostly on young gay men in Milwaukee. He dismembered and ate some of his victims. He was finally caught in 1991, and a fellow inmate murdered him three years later.
Out of what I assume is a strict adherence to the source material, the film never goes below the surface or attempts to explain why Dahmer became a monster or what could have been done to stop him. It subtly hints at his aberrant sexuality without confronting it. What remains is a stark depiction of events without drama, tension, or conflict.
Ross Lynch gives an admirable performance as the wannabe serial killer (although the movie doesn’t give him much to do). This is certainly a departure from his other roles in Disney films and TV shows like Austin & Ally (2011-2016). His brooding, deadpan performance couldn’t contrast more with his usual upbeat, teen heartthrob characters. Such a dramatic acting range bodes well for his future career in film, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in more dramatic roles.
Okay, I freely admit I missed the point of this film. It just seems like a collection of snapshots of events with no central theme or story. We see Dahmer’s fascination with death and dead things, his struggle to fit in, and his progression toward murder. But in the end, all this goes nowhere.
There’s a disturbing interview with Dahmer’s dad in which he describes the day he almost caught his son with a severed human head he kept in a box in the basement. Dahmer refused to open it at the time but did so the next day, replacing the head with porno mags. This happened after Dahmer graduated high school, so it wouldn’t have been strictly accurate, but including a scene like that would have at least added some tension and drama.
In an interview with Vulture, graphic novel author John Backderf talked about how his story is, “at its heart, a story about failure.” “Everybody, either through incompetence or indifference, just let this kid go. And it’s astonishing to me that nobody noticed or said they didn’t notice a thing. The drinking — this kid reeked of alcohol at school. He used to walk around school with a styrofoam cup full of booze. And nobody noticed a thing? That’s just astounding to me…”
It would have been great if that sentiment somehow made it into the film. It poses the ultimate question: was Dahmer’s behavior so weird and extraordinary someone should have noticed the alarming signs? Or could no one have predicted the murderer he became? That’s the point of an origin story. We all know what Dahmer became. We want to know why and how he became it. In my view, this film fails to ask that question and so completely drops the ball.