My Friend Dahmer (Movie Review)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

PLOT: A chilling look into the life of adolescent Jeffrey Dahmer, as he tries to fit in at school, make friends and cope with increasingly violent tendencies.

REVIEW: Have you ever wondered what it must have been like in the early years of a notorious mass murderer? Well, Marc Meyers’ new film MY FRIEND DAHMER attempts, with sobering impartiality, to give us a glimpse of how Jeffrey Dahmer germinated the seeds of abject evil as an awkward, alcoholic teenage misfit in Bath, Ohio in 1978. Based on the popular graphic novel of the same name by Derf Backderf, a real friend of Dahmer’s from 40 years ago, the movie’s single greatest achievement is how it plays right down the middle, neither sympathetically humanizing Dahmer’s disturbed mental state nor cheaply sensationalizing the concomitant eruptions of violence. There’s a removed objectivity that the movie operates on, never forcing you to take sides one way or the other. With a cold, stoically entranced turn from Ross Lynch as Dahmer, even when not a lot is happening for long stretches, MY FRIEND DAHMER does an admirable job at depicting the psychological unwinding of the adolescent mind of a murderer-manqué!

Fall, 1978. Jeffrey Dahmer is a shy, socially awkward teenager with not a lot of friends. His parents Joyce and Lionel (Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts) constantly quarrel, his little brother Dave (Liam Koeth) hardly looks up to him, much less wants to spend time with him. As the story starts, we get a sense of Dahmer’s penchant for dead things, as he enjoys collecting animal road-kill and dissolving their remains in jars of acid that he procures from his father’s chemistry class. An early scene shows Jeff’s sociopathic sensibility when he eagerly tries to apprise a couple of neighborhood kids of this process and how he likes to see the insides of dead beings. They run for the hills immediately. At school, Dahmer fits in no better. He begins to gain attention by spasmodically acting out, publicly feigning “palsy” seizures, much to the delight of ridiculing students. This becomes known as “doing the Dahmer,” and soon Jeffrey is befriended by a trio of fellow marching band students, Derf (Alex Wolff), Neil (Tommy Nelson) and Mike (Harrison Holzer).

But even as Dahmer begins hanging out with these kids, you can tell he’s sort of being put on. He’s the laughing stock of the bunch, the human punching bag. You know, the one person in your group of friends everyone loves to give a hard time. We sense that Jeff is just happy to be included at first, but with time, the three friends begin sensing something truly unhinged in Jeff’s psyche. As his parents separate, tossing further tumult at his angst-ridden feet, Dahmer continues to collect dead animal carcasses, from the road and otherwise, often viciously dissecting them or unnecessarily mutilating what’s left of their remains. Jeff begins to watch a local doctor (Vincent Kartheiser) from the bushes on his daily jog by his house. He begins to drink profusely, both beer and hard liquor he swipes from his now absent father’s liquor cabinet. All the while, Dahmer does this with a blank thousand yard stare, entranced in a fugue state for most of the movie, cold and emotionless. It’s a credibly creepy turn by young Ross Lynch, whose Disney star-status is challenged in what has to be his most mature move to date.

As alluded to, the most compelling aspect of the film is its impositional stance on the subject matter. We’re never foisted with faux-sympathies that are meant to justify or neatly explain away why Dahmer ultimately became what he’s infamous for. No mealy-mouthed argument is made that he was a product of his environment, or that he was in some way a victim of anything other than his own devices. Nor is the movie a gross-out exploitation of his violent transgressions. In fact, most grue-hounds and hardcore horror heads will likely be disappointed by not just the lack, but the type of violent outbursts featured in the flick. This is not a grisly serial killer thriller, it’s a psychologically chilling portrait of an undeveloped mind slipping away toward the deeply demented and depraved. And the way Meyers’ delicately handles the material, taking a distant step back in order to simply recount Derf’s memoir with a nonjudgmental eye, is why the movie works as well as it does.

If ever there was something to grouse about however, it would be the dearth of eventfully harrowing sequences. There’s no grandiose set-piece, no climactic crescendo, no one moment or memorable scene that really drives to the heart of Dahmer’s terror. I don’t even necessarily mean in terms of violence either. The story beats never build to a truly satisfying culmination. The movie remains low-key, full of small moments, opting for clinical objectivity over salacious subjectivity. Which I enjoy, and even prefer, but there does remain a “nothing really happens” quality about the flick which might be hard for some to overlook. All in all though, MY FRIEND DAHMER is a thoughtfully scripted, deftly directed, handsomely photographed, admirably acted take on the making of a murderer. Not for nothing, but Steven Avery has nothing on Jeffrey Dahmer!

Source: AITH

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.