MY FRIEND DAHMER
The life and crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer have been portrayed on film in the likes of The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer (1993), Dahmer (2002), Raising Jeffrey Dahmer (2006) and the quasi-documentary/drama The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (2012). He also makes appearances in Diary of a Serial Killer (2008), is resurrected/turns up as a ghost in Death Factory (2014) and the Devils Night (2015) episode American Horror Story, and makes gonzo appearances in Dahmer vs Gacy (2010) and Gingerdead Man 3: Saturday Night Cleaver (2011)
John Derf Backderf was one of Dahmers classmate in Bath, Ohio who befriended him and joined in many of Dahmers escapades. Usually publishing under the name Derf, Backderf went on to become a successful newspaper cartoonist and later comic-book writer. Backderf published My Friend Dahmer (2012), a graphic novel depicting his escapades with Dahmer. This enjoyed considerable acclaim and won the comic-book industrys Eisner Award. It was later adapted as a play before the film was made here. (Oddly, the film seems afraid of the comic-book association and simply says in the opening credits that it is based on the novel by Derf Backderf as opposed to comic-book or graphic novel).
My Friend Dahmer tells the story of Jeffrey Dahmers senior year in college. It is an interesting new perspective for any film about a serial killer to take one that assumes its audience already comes to it with knowledge about his crimes. In fact, nothing is mentioned of Dahmers crimes at all with the exception of the final scene where we see Dahmer picking up Steven Hicks who becomes his first victim. Rather the film focuses on the mundane stuff concerning Dahmers family life, his mildly reactionary escapades at school, his social isolation and his obsessions that we know will blossom into the crimes Dahmer is associated with.
The title role has a phenomenal performance from the unknown 23 year-old Ross Lynch, Lynch has an incredibly difficult job that of authentically portraying a character we all know will become a serial killer but also making the character sympathetic. Added to the mix, Lynch also has to play a Dahmer who is socially withdrawn and is obsessed with dead animals. (This leads to blackly funny lines like: I have to pick up roadkill but I'm trying to quit). That Lynch manages to make the extremely socially withdrawn Dahmer into a character we empathise with proves a considerable acting triumph. What you end up getting is a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of the extremes of social isolation. Even little pieces like where Dahmer finally gets a prom date at the end become ones where you end up rooting for him against the rest of the world that bullies and ignores him you have to actually pull back and remember it is a serial killer and cannibal you are having sympathy for.
This is not a film that delves into the squeamish nastiness of Dahmers crimes. There are some ick scenes at the beginning with him demonstrating to other schoolkids the collection of dead bodies that he keeps in jars of acid in the garden shed. Or some chill moments like where he is roomed with the only African-American kid in the school on the class trip and creepily talks about how their insides are the same. (Certainly, the earlier released The Boy (2015), which has a number of similarities to My Friend Dahmer in its (fictional) story of a young isolated child collecting roadkill and fascinated with death, does a far more chill and disturbing depiction of these aspects). On the other hand, the film has fun with the school scenes with the kids Doing a Dahmer acting mentally handicapped or throwing epileptic fits in public places and the apparently true story where he conned his way into The White House and a meeting with Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carters Vice President, while on a school trip to Washington.