“From now on, in this family, we eat our mistakes.”
When it comes to serial killers, within the national conscience, we like to know that there were signs “all along” about the accused in question. Were they weird at school? Did they like to pull the legs off spiders? Did they ever have a girlfriend? We like to know that these monsters always were monsters; not a product of the society that they live in. Because if it were a case of the latter, how many more maniacs are we liable to breed?
The stories about one of America’s most notorious serial killers – Jeffrey Dahmer – and his school years are fairly well documented. He was a bit of a loner and a weirdo who liked to fake epileptic fits and kept road kill in jars. Marc Meyer’s film, My Friend Dahmer, goes beyond these reports – which added to the sensationalism of Dahmer’s case – to explore the psychological state of a teenage boy who became one of the most feared names in America.
Based on Derf Backderf’s graphic novel of the same name (Backderf was a classmate of Dahmer’s), the film explores the Milwaukee Cannibal’s high school years wherein he attempted to cope with a truly dysfunctional homelife and an isolating school experience. It never delves into his twelve year long murderous spree, and is so much the more interesting for avoiding the topic. Young Jeffrey had easy access to chemicals – including acid – because his absent father worked in a chemistry lab. His mother was too busy popping pills and taking extended stays at a local mental health facility to truly provide a loving influence in his life. His parents constantly screamed and argued in front of their children. He, and his younger brother David, are often left to their own devices and seem unusually taciturn for 1970s youth.
With Dahmer, it is very easy to cite the old adage of “nature versus nurture”. If he had had a more peaceful and normal family environment; if he had had kinder friends (and more of them); if he hadn’t had access to roadkill owing to the woodland backing onto his garden … Would he have turned out the way he did? The film does make a case for underlying mental health issues, coupled with frustration over sexuality, but it also makes clear that there were several unusual circumstances that shaped who the adult Dahmer became.
Disney channel alumni, Ross Lynch, is absolutely phenomenal as the young killer. He captures Dahmer’s hunched stance perfectly. As if to prove how innocuous he was as a teen, there are several scenes where Dahmer is literally the last thing you notice in a particular scene as he so seamlessly blends into the background. He isn’t some snarling, pantomime villain; his performance is so subtle and conflicting. On the one had, there are several instances where it is possible to feel sympathy for Dahmer’s miserable teenage years. It’s small wonder he started acting up in school – it was the only glimmer of attention he ever got. It’s almost as if Lynch is playing Dahmer with no knowledge of the crimes he went on to commit; there are no nudges and winks to the audience. He simply lets his character slowly unravel owing to the events going on in his life; culminating in one final outburst at a local mall.
Perhaps giving the audience what they want, there are elements of monstrous behaviour – he guts a dog and nails it to a tree and fantasises about being in bed with the corpse of the local doctor – but there are also times when Dahmer is seen to be friendly, charming and persuasive. This film is particularly challenging in that it doesn’t necessarily go seeking sympathy for the circumstances of Dahmer’s upbring – but it’s not necessarily casting him as a villain, either.
Alongside Lynch’s truly interesting central performance, the supporting cast is equally brilliant. Anne Heche is frenzied and selfish as Jeffrey’s mother whilst Dallas Roberts puts in a beleaguered performance as the socially awkward Lionel Dahmer. Alex Wolff – as Derf Backderf – slowly realises that his friend Jeffrey, who he had previously treated as nothing more as a performing monkey, might have something more sinister lurking under the surface.
Meyers has created a fascinating insight into the psyche of one of America’s most infamous serial killers, without resorting to any nonsense, sensationalist tactics. An absolutely tremendous piece of cinema.
My Friend Dahmer is currently screening at the Glasgow Film Festival.