Though the serial killer subsection of horror has been done to death at this point, there are still filmmakers attempting to milk it for whatever rotten milk is left in that diseased udder. My Friend Dahmer takes an approach that’s familiar (delivering the coming of age portion of a sociopath’s days) and puts a somewhat fresh spin on it. Spoilers (I guess): there isn’t a single murder in writer/director Marc Meyers’ filmic adaptation of Derf Backderf’s eponymous B&W graphic novel. Instead, he opts to take a “just like you” approach to the Ohio-by-way-of-Wisconsin murderer’s high school struggles, focusing on his failed attempts to make any sort of human connection with the ordinary world.
As you can probably imagine, Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) was an awkward young lad – tall, gangly, with a mop of golden hair and oversized spectacles. Jeffrey’s life in ‘78 is full of bullies calling him “faggot”, and girls turning up their noses in his general presence. His gait is stiff, and his long arms hang limp at his sides. His soft eyes generally avoid contact with others’, as he’s clearly tired of being judged or hassled. Essentially, he’s Bill Haverchuck from Paul Feig’s awesome but short-lived NBC series, Freaks & Geeks. Only this Bizarro World Martin Starr character also has an experiment hut out in the woods, where he dissolves road kill in acid he “borrows” from his chemist father (Dallas Roberts). When the local shady toker (Miles Robbins) tries to sell him some weed, Jeffrey’s more fascinated by the knife the kid brandishes, which comes complete with its own Nazi mythology. There’s empathy here, but it’s definitely for the devil.
Lynch is incredible as Dahmer, thoroughly transforming into a meek kid who harbors more than one deep secret. Whenever Jeffrey spots his crush – local family physician Dr. Matthews (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser) – jogging past his house, his eyes go low with dreamy wonder. This is the type of man he wants to be with: strong, bearded, and sporting a brilliant head of hair. But Jeffrey has no idea how to confront the sexuality brewing beneath his awkward exterior. Lynch combines this confusion with frustration stemming from his home life, as his unstable mother (Anne Heche) is constantly embattled with his increasingly tired pop following her recent suicide attempt (an event those familiar with Dahmer’s legacy will pick up on via periphery details). The end result is a ticking time bomb constantly attempting to diffuse itself, but the lack of friendly support only makes his struggles that much more difficult.
“We should start a Dahmer fan club,” Derf (Alex Wolff, portraying the novel’s artist) says to Mike (Harrison Holzer) and Neil (Tommy Nelson), after hearing Jeffrey’s begun faking seizures in their high school’s halls for attention. However, the trio’s attempts at adding Dahmer to their outsider crew are never genuine acts of friendship, simply self-serving stabs at hilarity. They know this weirdo is “off”, and see no problem sitting with him at lunch, since he seems harmless. That’s until Jeffrey (never “Jeff”) guts a tiny fish instead of tossing it back into the pond during a lazy fishing trip. This a prime of example of the horror and tension Meyers builds throughout the film - mundane instances of Dahmer’s gestating evil slipping out into his microcosm, alerting peers to a potential problem. They could’ve possibly been his Sam Weir, Daniel Desario, and Neil Schweiber, had the frustrations not escalated once Jeffrey began breaking into his dad’s booze. Instead, he’s merely a morbid curiosity, kept at arm’s length as to avoid the shrapnel once he inevitably explodes.
While undeniably well made – not to mention shot in Dahmer’s hometown and childhood house, adding an icky layer of authenticity – Meyers’ refusal to escalate the drama beyond these initial red flags is both admirable and frustrating. On one hand, he’s committing to a hyper-specificity that helps deliver universality to the tale he’s telling. On the other, this sort of tension only goes so far when there’s no real climax (this is the type of movie that ends with a title card). My Friend Dahmer is honestly not a horror picture at all, despite its subject having confessed to the rape, murder, and disposal of nearly twenty men. Instead, what we’re left with is a portrait of the eternal freak, resigned to damnation because he couldn’t make friends or lovers out of the young geeks surrounding him, despite his best efforts.