Director: Marc Meyers
Screenplay: Marc Meyers
Starring: Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Anne Heche, Dallas Roberts
Duration: 105 min
BBFC Certification: 15
In 1979, a member of my extended family murdered a woman and served 20 years in prison, and after his release, remarried and then, in 2004, killed his wife and dismembered her body. I was six years old at the time of the first murder, so knew nothing of it until I was a teenager. I was fascinated by the story and over time I’ve developed a real interest in the darker side of humanity – I’m an avid reader/viewer of books and documentaries on the occult, criminal gangs and, especially, serial killers. I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for a large part of my adult life and I try to live as positively as possible, but something about people’s dark leanings really draw me in. It’s not just morbid voyeurism on my part, as I truly would like to understand why people do what they do. I’ve watched many films that portray the lives and crimes of serial killers, and I was intrigued to see My Friend Dahmer, as it was billed as portraying the life of Jeffrey Dahmer before his crimes and offering insight into his motivations.
Between 1978 and 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer murdered, raped and in some cases, cannibalised the remains of 17 young men and boys in the US. He is probably the most famous serial killer of modern times. Based on the graphic novel-memoir by John “Derf” Backderf, who was friends with Dahmer at school, the film follows Jeffrey’s final year at high school in Ohio. Living in an isolated house in the woods with his mother (Anne Heche) who has mental health issues and his downtrodden, inadequate father (Dallas Roberts), Dahmer leads a lonely existence whose only joy appears to be in collecting roadkill and dissolving them in acid because he “likes the bones”. In school he is a loner, moving through the hallways like a ghost, until one day he just starts to impersonate someone suffering from cerebal palsy. This elicits laughs from everyone and leads to him being accepted into Backderf’s (Alex Wolff) group of friends, although it transpires that they are really making fun of him.
Ross Lynch is excellent in the title role and with his shaggy blonde hair, big glasses and uncool clothes has an unsettling resemblance to photos of the real Dahmer as a teen (not to mention how much he looks like a guy I was at Art College with!). The other performances are solid, but nothing special – Heche and Roberts, who are both normally outstanding actors, appear to be dialling it in, offering nothing new to the many other depictions of troubled kids’ dysfunctional parents in other films. Alex Wolff, who was so good in Hereditary, is caught in a weird kind of limbo between Dahmer’s only real friend and exploitative bully – but this may accurately reflect the real life Dahmer and Backderf’s relationship.
Given that this film has been sold as providing the untold story behind Jeffrey Dahmer, there is very little in the film that is a surprise in any way. Meyers provides a look at the life of a teenage outsider with possible mental illness, who would go on to commit such horrendous crimes. Worryingly, Dahmer is actually portrayed in quite a sympathetic light. The obsessions that hint at his future depravity are so common among future psychopaths that they come off as clichés. His homosexuality is also becoming apparent with his fixation on a runner who passes his house every day, a man who Dahmer starts to stalk and fantasise about.
I’ve not read the original graphic novel that My Friend Dahmer is based on, but I suspect it is written from Derf’s perspective. This approach would have worked better for the film, offering a more original take on the story. As it is, the film just feels like a typical ‘70s set melodrama telling the story of dull nobody who comes from Nowhereville, USA who would have led a pretty unremarkable life if he hadn’t become a serial killer. In the end, we don’t gain any real insight into what made Dahmer into a killer – was it his parents, his high school experiences, his genes? Disappointingly, the marketing of the film offers so much, but ultimately the film delivers so little.
My Friend Dahmer is released on DVD by Altitude Film Distribution.>