Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is a quiet high school student. He’s considered odd by his classmates because of his interest in collecting road kill and dissolving the flesh with acid he gets from his chemical engineer father Lionel (Dallas Roberts) to collect the bones. His mother Joyce (Anne Heche) frequently argues with Lionel and she has a history of mental illness including a hospitalization. At school a boy nicknamed Derf (Alex Wolff) notices Dahmer makes a classroom full of students laugh by mocking a man with palsy. Derf and his friends decide to start the Dahmer Fan Club and encourage Dahmer to make a spectacle of himself by faking a seizure and making squawking noises in classes and hallways. Despite how humiliating his antics are Dahmer goes along with the requests to “pull a Dahmer” as the boys call it because he feels like this group is his friends. Things at home are only getting worse as Lionel and Joyce are arguing more and his mother’s mental state is deteriorating. Dahmer also is becoming more obsessed with a jogger that runs past his house that turns out to be Dr. Matthews (Vincent Kartheiser), the physician for one of his new friends. Soon Dahmer is showing up to class drunk and dissecting dead animals in the woods behind his house. A couple of his friends notice his odd behavior but keep their fears to themselves. Dahmer begins to spin completely out of control when his parents’ divorce, his father moves in with his girlfriend and his mother leaves with Dahmer’s younger brother to live with her mother. Jeffrey is all alone in the house with only his dark thoughts and desires.
Based on the graphic novel of the same name written by one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s high school classmates, “My Friend Dahmer” is a heartbreaking and fascinating look at the infamous serial killer before he took his first victim. While no one at the time could have had any idea of the future held, the audience knows just how far Dahmer would go and it makes everything in the film that much more devastating.
If you’re looking for a gore-filled orgy of violence you won’t find it in “My Friend Dahmer.” The film is like a musical prelude that introduces the themes of the symphony. We see the withdrawn and awkward Dahmer as the foundation of his psychosis is laid and the first inklings of the horrors he would inflict on his victims begin to peek out of the shadows of his damaged mind. It is the kind of movie that may disappoint some looking for Dahmer to be portrayed as a monster, gnashing his teeth and drooling in anticipation of his first kill. What we see is a character that isn’t that different than any other high school student: He lacks confidence. He seeks positive attention that he isn’t getting at home. His sexual identity is presenting itself but he isn’t sure how to act on it. It is a calm and thorough look at the making of a serial killer without being exploitive or pandering to the lowest common denominator.
“My Friend Dahmer” would be nothing without a great performance in the title role and Ross Lynch is amazing as Jeffrey Dahmer. Ross channels all of his emotional energy into playing a character that has no energy at all. Dahmer doesn’t even bother to swing his arms when he walks. It’s like Lynch is trying to be as small as possible in an effort to disappear from the world. Playing a low-energy character might seem like an easy thing to do; but to maintain that minimal level would be exhausting over long shooting days. Lynch is in nearly every shot of the movie and must have been wrung out by the end of filming.
If you don’t know who Ross Lynch is then you probably don’t have any tween girls at home as he is the star of a Disney Channel show called Austin & Ally. He’s had a few bit parts in other TV shows and a few movies but this is certainly his biggest role to date and judging by his performance he will likely be a very in demand actor in the near future.
Anne Heche is also fantastic as Joyce Dahmer. Where Jeffrey is low energy, Joyce is constantly manic and usually angry. Heche flies around the screen like a whirling dervish, bouncing from topic to topic and ready to spew venom in everyone’s direction. Joyce Dahmer lacks a filter likely due to her mental illness that’s briefly discussed in the film. Heche has had her own emotional struggles as she was hospitalized after exhibiting erratic behavior in August of 2000. This likely informed her portrayal and that experience makes Joyce Dahmer a puzzling and sometimes frightening character that Heche performs with zeal and honesty.
The story takes its time to build only giving us glimpses of the darkness in Dahmer’s mind: His interest in the bones of animals and the growing obsession with the jogging doctor. It is a story that’s hard to watch sometimes as Dahmer humiliates himself for the amusement of his friends. They aren’t as cruel as they sound, including Dahmer in their group and doing things with him; but his inclusion is dependent on performing at their command. There are brief flashes of Dahmer trying to break free from his role as freak. On a school trip to Washington D.C., Dahmer manages to get him and his friends in to meet the assistant to Vice President Walter Mondale then they actually get to meet him. He manages to get a prom date but that doesn’t go as well. The audience knows Dahmer is going to turn into a necrophilic and cannibalistic serial killer but there are brief moments when we hope things turn out differently because we kind of like Dahmer. Despite his weirdness there is something endearing about Dahmer and we wish something had intervened and allowed him to be “normal.” The script by director Marc Meyers and graphic novel writer John Backderf passes no judgements and offers no opinions. It merely presents the facts (most of what’s in the movie actually happened) and lets the audience form their own view. Most films aren’t brave enough to trust the audience to make a decision for themselves but “My Friend Dahmer” is confident those seeing the film will understand.
“My Friend Dahmer” is rated R for disturbing images, brief nudity, teen drug use, drinking, language and sexual content. We see Dahmer pick up road kill, handle bones from animals he’s dissected and cut up a fish in a frenzy after catching in from a pond. A character intentionally cuts himself with a knife then sucks on the wound. A game of Russian roulette is played. Pot is shown being smoked on a couple of occasions. Characters are shown drinking beer and hard liquor. A centerfold is briefly shown. There are typical crude teenage discussions of sex. Foul language is scattered.
Jeffrey Dahmer killed, dismembered, partially ate and had sex with 17 men and boys over a period of 13 years from 1978 to 1991. He was sentenced to multiple life terms and was beaten to death in prison by another inmate in 1994. Dahmer didn’t grow up abused. He wasn’t a creation of the foster care system. As far as we know he didn’t suffer any head trauma that is frequently reported with serial killers. It’s unclear what made Jeffrey Dahmer a predator that stalked his prey then tried to turn them into zombies that would never leave him. Thinking of him only as his crimes makes him something other than human; but looking before his first murder makes the audience question what separates the Dahmers of the world from the Average Joes. The difference between us is frighteningly thin.
“My Friend Dahmer” gets five stars.
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