SXSW Movie Review: JEFF, A Documentary About Jeffrey Dahmer

Thematically confused and filled with bad recreations, this documentary seems half ashamed of itself.

There’s no denying that the reason we are drawn to the case of Jeffrey Dahmer is the sheer macabre extremity of his crimes; while other killers who have similar body counts languish in relative obscurity, Dahmer’s grotesque mutilations, necrophilia and cannibalism have captured the darker parts of our imagination. It’s helped by the fact that Dahmer was a clean cut, not bad looking guy, making the depths of his depravity a striking contrast.

Yet the filmmakers behind Jeff, a documentary about the killer, seem sort of ashamed of the gory side of their story. This raises some questions about the line between exploitation and examination (and possibly about my own tastes), as well as what an audience wants out of a documentary about a subject like this. That said, I don’t think the movie’s tip-toeing around the nasty stuff would be so obvious if the film had actually stuck to its own thematic concept.

The doc focuses on three people impacted by the Dahmer case: the detective who interrogated him, the medical examiner who dealt with the bodies and Dahmer’s neighbor. The mix is missing a relative of one of Dahmer’s victims, but that isn’t the film’s biggest sin. The biggest sin comes in including lifeless, airless recreations of Jeff Dahmer fucking about in Milwaukee between the interviews.

The film would have been much stronger without any Dahmer at all; if he had just appeared in courtroom footage it would have been more potent, and would have allowed the doc to truly focus on these people. But the constant cutaways to a guy in aviators acting poorly undercuts the real life stories being told.

On top of that only one of these stories is truly interesting; Detective Pat Kennedy’s life was hit like a bullet by his association with Dahmer. Those famous courtroom photos of the killer? Dahmer is wearing Kennedy’s son’s clothes. The detective found himself suddenly famous, and from what you gather in the film it impacted his marriage and his very state of mind. There’s a story here, and it feels half told in Jeff.

Jeff ends up a movie that’s not really about anything. The reconstructions ruin the film’s attempts to focus on people impacted by Dahmer, and the film’s squeamishness ruins any low brow thrills we might get. Director Chris James Thompson should have looked at Robinson Devor’s excellent Zoo, a documentary about an outre subject that manages to both look at the philosophy and humanity of bestiality while also delivering shocking moments.

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