my friend dahmer
- Review by Dara McWade
Jeffrey Dahmer, might seem an odd protagonist as he was a serial killer convicted of the murder of seventeen boys and men in Milwaukee, USA, between the years of 1978 and 1991. My Friend Dahmer, while based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Jon "Derf" Backderf, does not take the obvious route of framing the film from Derf's point of view. Instead, it tells the story from Dahmer's point of view, painting an unsettlingly empathetic portrait of a troubled, isolated young man with violent impulses he could not understand. Damher's isolation grows through the film, as does his violent impulses - his cries for help ignored at every turn.
Ross Lynch, an actor mostly known for his Disney Channel roles, is cast against type here as Dahmer. He's an elusive character, often hiding in plain sight. Hidden beneath his long blonde hair and wire aviator eyeglasses, slouched and scowled like a gorilla. Yet he's uncomfortable being this background figure, ignored by bullies and cool kids alike. He begins to lash out for attention, "spazzing out" in school and in grocery stores, causing maximum disruption through these faked seizures. Enter Derf, played by fellow teen star Alex Wolff, clad in National Lampoon t-shirts and constantly doodling Dahmer as other figures, like superheroes and coat hangers. He and his anti-authoritarian friends become convinced that Dahmer can disrupt the school's attitude forming a "Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club". They encourage his antics, exploiting his desire for attention and companionship by turning his existence into a joke. We're unsure if Dahmer understands this. Is he trying to be funny, or does he misunderstand and is just doing his best to fit in? Dahmer seems eternally confused by other's behaviour - at how to be close to others. At times, he puts on a facade of normality but others can always tell that there is something off with Dahmer.
His home too, is unsafe. Almost universally everyone in his life failed him. His parents ignore him. His mother, an addict, doesn't seem to be able to notice what goes on around her, and his father is so hen-pecked that even when he tries to help, he’s not able to do so too personally. In fact, it seems that Dahmer takes after his father in many ways. He is also a pharmacist, (Dahmer gets many of his surgical toys off him), and a particular shot actually has them stand next to each other, their postures and glasses the exact same. Dahmer’s parents are viciously self-centred and he becomes angry because of it. His own parents' rejection seemingly a catalyst to his disturbed future. He's angry not just at them, but at the whole damn world that seems to keep rejecting him.
While it can't explain his violent impulses the film does show his repressed ones. Dahmer gazes at a nearby doctor (played by a bearded Vincent Kartheiser), imagining him on his bed. The film suggests that Dahmer's sexual repression, as evidenced by his gruesome murders, was a major factor in his later violence. It's rare that a film can provoke true compassion for a serial killer, but My Friend Dahmer achieves that. Now, whether or not you believe these killers deserve such empathetic character studies will colour your enjoyment of the film. As they say online, with this disturbing work, your mileage may vary.