Often I like to watch films that I know nothing about besides the title so that it doesn’t taint my viewing experience, but having seen this movie I feel that having prior knowledge of the protagonist’s horrific crimes would have enabled me to have gotten more out of this film.
Having grown up in England and not having an interest in serial killers, I had never really heard of Jeffrey Dahmer and the 17 men and boys he murdered between 1978 and 1991. I read his Wikipedia page after seeing this movie and it shed a lot of light upon things that were hinted at, both subtly and explicitly, throughout the film.
My Friend Dahmer is a biographical teen drama taking place in the late 70’s in Ohio, based on the graphic novel of the same name by John Backderf, who was a friend of Dahmer’s at the time. Although I haven’t read the graphic novel I am intrigued to do so to see what was added and removed, and how certain scenes made the transition to the big screen. I also wonder what the basis of the scenes without Backderf is, as we get a lot of focus on Dahmer and his motivations, but of course lots of liberties are taken with films based on true stories.
We are introduced to Dahmer (Ross Lynch) as a reclusive young man with a fascination with a male jogger. Shortly afterwards we see his hobby of dissolving animal carcasses in acid to strip the flesh from their bones. Dahmer has troublemaking friends and is a bit of a recluse at school, but the bullies seem to leave him alone.
He lives in a picturesque town full of greenery with his younger brother, an outspoken mother with ongoing mental issues, and his father, who is trying to keep the family together. At school he impersonates a man with cerebral palsy in order to impress his fellow students, and as such develops a bit of a fan club who wants him to ‘do a Dharma’. He also befriends Backderf (Alex Wolff).
The film has a lot of high school clichés such as the prom, popular kids, grumpy teachers and a token drug dealer with issues. Despite some fun scenes (and considering who this is about), this isn’t another high school comedy. Perhaps surprisingly though, the majority of the films laughs come from Dahmer and his friends, and the mischievous schemes they partake in. But as these schemes progress the laughs become awkward and uncomfortable, adding to a foreboding dark tone that the film wishes to achieve. That said, in my opinion there wasn’t enough darkness to compliment the humour.
The film plays out as a teen drama that is very much descriptive of various moments in the protagonist’s life. Unfortunately though there’s very little dramatic weight or foreboding, and those expecting either a horror or comedy will be disappointed.
For me the film just sort of plodded along as we see an alienated and troubled teenager dealing with his family life falling apart, trying to play the fool to impress his fellow students but never really finding a true friend who understands him. As such his fascination with anatomy, homosexual urges and desire to kill as a form of release build as the film progresses, but don’t add up to much from the viewers point of view.
There are a couple of moments of suspense and dread, but these are few and far between. That being said certain scenes stuck with me and I wonder if I would get more out of a second viewing, or if it would appear as check list of: this is why he did this / this led to this / so this is where he got the dumbbell from etc.
On a positive there is a great performance from Ross Lynch as the titular Jeffrey Dahmer. The former Disney Channel star offers lots of subtleties in his movements and facial expressions, which are captivating and often unnerving. We also have a great performance from Anne Heche who plays his mother Joyce, a stubborn woman with a history of mental illness, who does whatever she pleases at the expense of her family. Early on we see that she doesn’t acknowledge her eldest son, and as such we are led to believe that he has grown up without her support and attention; aka he has mommy issues.
But for someone without prior knowledge it seemed like another story where a repressed young man becomes a serial killer due to his repressed homosexual urges and the destruction of his family due to divorce. Overall the film gives a forced and reductive description of what led to his horrific actions in later life.
An example is the forced eerie score that is used throughout the latter part of the film. It’s meant to reinforce Dahmer’s twisted state of mind, but it comes across as cheesy and distracting. In this instance less would have been more, or they could have re-used one of the many great songs that played earlier on in the film to portray an altered viewpoint.
That being said it’s not a totally bad film, but there are a few too many moments that just seem to drag. It doesn’t help either that it feels like you’re waiting for a payoff that just doesn’t happen. Lots of scenes felt out of place and the overall tone isn’t consistent.
Overall Verdict: There are interesting moments in this look at what influences a young, troubled man to become one of America’s most notorious serial killers. But despite a great lead performance from Ross Lynch, nothing truly stands out in this awkward drama.
Reviewer: George Elcombe