Adapted from John Backderf’s graphic-novel of the same name, director Marc Meyers’ My Friend Dahmeris a peculiar portal into the agonising adolescence of the “Milwaukee Monster” – notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
The 2012 graphic-novel is particularly fascinating because Backderf based the work on his own teenage relationship with Dahmer himself. Observations of his character are illuminating, and it is clear to see that an authenticity has translated into Meyers’ directorial effort to interpret this intriguing memoir to the screen. The film follows Dahmer (Ross Lynch) as he tries to make friends and reach out to those around him -sometimes consciously, other times unconsciously – and provides a vague analysis of how the conflicted youth’s despairing family unit may have contributed to his demise.
The masterstroke of My Friend Dahmer is that its concern isn’t with gore and atrocity, but rather the psychological damage that can cause a young man to turn to such dark impulses. What audiences are given is a thoughtful and engaging character study of an individual that many would consider impossible to understand. The reason that this study is a success is because Meyers confides and trusts in Lynch’s ability and dedication to a role that would have been difficult to approach for a manifold of accomplished actors. Dahmer’s emotional disconnect from his naively abusive peers is always clear thanks to Lynch’s commitment to appearance; his expressions are drained of association when spending time with them. Yet, this is a film about something much more unsettling that routine angst. Dahmer does not look through people, he gazes inside of them with a fascination which stems from a curious longing to explore the interior workings of human biology. This is an idea that is keenly considered within the narrative, however, some of the dialogue clumsily foreshadows common knowledge of the titular protagonist, which sometimes clashes with the more hushed moments that play to the film’s strengths.
The focus of every frame rarely strays from presenting Dahmer’s awkward movements and behaviour. Some conversations held by others discussing Dahmer are displayed in order to better inform the audience of central characters’ honest opinions of him, though, because of the way the protagonist is often shot obscurely or in the background, it always feels like he may be present during these revealing exchanges. This effectively gives the predictive impression that the core character of the film is in face greater than what is going on around him, and of course, this was tragically the case. The gossiping and buoyant framework of the high-school sub-genre the film works within functions well, and helps add layers to the story. The school setting allows for some observational humour, but importantly, never detracts from Dahmer’s very personal and enclosed experience; an experience which becomes even more problematic at home. Admittedly, the rushed exposition doesn’t quite help to sell the idea of a dysfunctional home, so it does feel relatively pencilled in as the narrative progresses and once all of the characters have been adequately established. Fortunately, this decision provides some consequently emotional and even heartbreaking moments, and help communicate that, importantly, this is a film essentially about loneliness, and how suffering such for long enough can result in learning life lessons the wrong way.
My Friend Dahmer is an understated film, and while this is often an asset, some more skeletal scenes could considerably benefit from some resourceful and insightful dialogue; although on exception, sometimes the opportunity for dramatic intensity seems undercut by Meyers’ hesitance to linger on potentially sentimental sequences. Overall, his latest effort shows great talent, and perhaps most pleasing is that the director is content to end the film where many filmmakers with an interest in Jeffrey Dahmer would wish to begin – despite this being an adaptation, it’s a refreshing and bold take on one of the most infamous killers of our times, and a film to continue the controversy of one man’s legacy of lunacy.