This is the story…before that story. For a tagline to a movie about one of the world’s most infamous serial killers, it sounds a little exploitative and cash-grabby…maybe even superhero origin-esque, does it not? Do not let those vibes deter you. My Friend Dahmer is a complicated and even-handed view into the late teen high school years of a man who would be dubbed as “The Milwaukee Monster.” Released roughly five years ago, it’s as good a time as any to take a look back at an underseen and underrated movie.
THE STORY: The year is 1978 and it is Jeffrey Dahmer’s (Ross Lynch) senior year of high school in Revere, Ohio. Jeff is a classic introvert; the only club he participates in is marching band and his interests are more in chemicals and animals…particularly when they’re deceased. Jeffrey’s antisocialness alarms his father, Lionel (Dallas Roberts), who sees a bit of Jeffrey in himself. A chemist, Lionel cares about his family which includes wife Joyce (Anne Heche) and younger son, David (Liam Koeth); however, he is rarely around due to the demands of work which has built a widening gulf between him and Joyce, a long time sufferer of depression and addictive substances.
His home life not conducive to being supportive, Jeffrey does his best to find some more friends in his final year. He garners attention by “spazzing,” which brings him into a new friend group led by John “Derf” Backderf (Alex Wolff). John, Neil (Tommy Nelson), and Moose (Cameron McKendry) create the “Dahmer Fan Club.” It is basic high school hijinks stuff, yet a true acceptance doesn’t exist. Soon, Jeffrey’s urges that he’s tried so hard to suppress with substances only grow and calcify. There is no one to help him, or stop him into what he is going to become…
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: My Friend Dahmer is a direct adaptation of a 90’s graphic novel from one of the characters here in Backderf, and by all accounts save for a few artistic tweaks, it is quite faithful and accurate to the novel.
Written and directed by Marc Meyers, the film possesses a timelessness that will likely never wane as it gets older. This is a story in many ways about the importance of access to mental health support, and the extreme dangers of one not receiving said support. Not everyone who gets help automatically becomes a better person, but everyone deserves the help and opportunity to be healthier. It is important that Meyers does not treat Jeffrey Dahmer as a “What if”? nor does he excuse or apotheosize Dahmer’s vile actions. He does humanize him with many deep/sad layers and provides context—sometimes subtle and not-so-subtle—as to why he would ultimately end up as one of history’s ill-famed figures, and maybe what his “friends” could have done differently.
My Friend Dahmer is very deliberate, pensive throughout. There are no human killings, and most of the animal killings are off-screen. Meyers squarely puts the focus on Jeffrey, as if he is desperately trying to solve an internal puzzle that eventually he gives up in doing so. For many, the movie’s pacing and lack of action could be off-putting, but if a slasher movie is desired there are many classics and VOD fare present. The decision was made to actually shoot in Dahmer’s hometown and childhood home, and yes, doing so unquestionably grounds the movie in heavy realism and eeriness the cast themselves reference. The sense always exists that a viewer is looking at something taking place in the actual late 70’s.
Lastly, and definitely most importantly, Lynch as Dahmer is pitch perfect, one of the greatest performances of the last decade. From the hunchback unorthodox gait, the lingering dead eyes that would soon transform into predatory ones, and the blank façade that hides a bubbling instability, every approach the past Disney star took in transforming himself to take this role pays off. We feel his pain while being afraid of the pain he’s getting ready to inflict.
A GREAT MOMENT: Let’s go with the penultimate scene that begins with Derf en route to return home. Derf stepped outside to get away from home for a small minute with all the hoopla graduating from high school brings. Def also needs to pick up his last work check. Now night, on his way back, he sees Dahmer walking on the side of the road, almost as if he’s in a trance. While the Dahmer Fan Club and Dahmer have essentially fallen out at this point, Derf offers Jeffrey a ride, a friendly thing to do. Jeffrey accepts.
Upon arriving at the Dahmer residence, Dahmer invites Derf in for a beer, one last time for old time’s sake, burying any ill will the two had. Their conversation continues in the car being awkwardly tense. Derf notices his bloody hands. News was buzzing in the high school about an eviscerated dog found in the woods a few days ago. When probed by Derf, Dahmer claims the red on his hands is paint. Against his best intuition, Derf finally obliges for one beer. The house is dark and Dahmer immediately encroaches upon Derf’s space. Derf has had enough, he quickly claims he must get home to his folks now. Dahmer trails, now with a bat in hand. At the last possible moment, Derf enters his locked vehicle, backs out, and drives away, never seeing Dahmer again.
This is the only scene of the film that is shot and lit like a horror. Meyers does not do much outside of letting Wolff and Lynch drive the energy; he stays out of the way and uses the ambient environment to lend unease. It’s little dialogue moments like when Derf asks Dahmer if he’s OK, or when Derf has to reconcile the fact that Dahmer knows he was treated not like a friend but a court jester that makes the scene. Once they enter the home with Derf going in first and Dahmer following behind, the moment isn’t about whether Derf becomes his first victim or not (clearly, he does not). Rather, it is to show that every person in life can be saved up to a point, but once their point is broken, there is no coming back. The scene ends with a low angle shot on Dahmer as he’s shrouded in darkness. The transformation is complete.
THE TALLY: Anchored by a masterful lead performance courtesy of Lynch and staunch, delicate adherence to its source material, the small released My Friend Dahmer is What to Watch. Currently streaming (as of this writing) on Peacock.