When it comes to serial killers, we tend to romanticize them in the sense that we see them as monsters: Detached from our own humanity and society, so we can feel better about ourselves. It’s shocking to discover these people lived normal lives and had normal relationships. Because knowing there could be a killer in your midst is terrifying.
This is looked at in Marc Meyer’s My Friend Dahmer.
My Friend Dahmer is based on a book by Derf Backderf. It details the teenage life of Jeffery Dahmer, long before he became one of America’s most notorious serial killers. Set in the seventies, it follows Dahmer in rural Ohio. Dealing with the unhappy marriage of his parents at home, Jeffrey spends most of his time collecting dead animals and dissolving them in his shed. He also has an uneasy obsession with a jogger who runs by his home every day. A relative unknown at school, Jeffrey starts to act out, imitating spasms and making loud noises to perturb his class mates whilst also attracting a group of boys eager for him to continue…
The central and titular character is performed by the young Ross Lynch. Much has been made of Lynch’s Disney background. True, the star has been made through many outrageous original movies and certainly him being cast against type here was a bold move. Yet it is a move that has worked because of this contrast. Lynch inhabits Dahmer brilliantly well. Understanding the thought processes that keeps him disconnected from his blossoming sexuality, and his utmost eagerness to fit in, Ross finds a really hard understanding with the real-life character that is often missed in movies of this nature.
Alex Wolff is magnetic as John “Derf” Backderf. As a willing participant of Jeffrey’s antics (and self-professed number one of his Fan Club,) Derf encourages the attention-seeking behaviour only to, naturally, tire of it. Wolff plays this intimately and intricately, showing a very usual dissipitation of interest. This, however, causes a slight hollow anguish for the audience. The further they use and then dispose of Jefffery, the further this pushes Dahmer to become more eccentric and seek further validation. As Derf and the group finally fall out of sync with Dahmer, the movie turns and becomes this study of loneliness in Jeffery, highlighting his frustrating with falling out of favour with society so early on in his life. As Derf encounters Dahmer one last time in a dark chance meeting, Wolff conveys the fright and worry as well as unquestionable remorse.
What My Friend Dahmer does is ground the titular serial killer in an eerie realness. The empathy delivered here is outstanding. By no means does the movie try to belittle or forgive Dahmer, but it does try to make sense of him in a grounded way. As aforementioned at the beginning, we as a society like to make supernatural beasts out of murderers to distance ourselves away from their nature. But by humanizing the killer and taking away the monster credentials, Meyer’s crafts a pitying, sympathetic piece that ultimately becomes more chilling in its truthfulness.
My Friend Dahmer is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!