Jeffrey Dahmer was a prolific serial killer, murdering 17 men from the late ’70s to the early ’90s. On July 22, 1991, Dahmer was arrested by the authorities and later tried and convicted for his crimes. He was murdered in prison in 1994 at the age of 34. But what was he like as a teenager?
My Friend Dahmer seeks to answer this question by following the trials and tribulations of a young Jeff Dahmer in his junior and senior year of high school. The film is based on the graphic novel of the same name, authored by John “Derf” Backderf. Backderf knew Dahmer in high school, and is featured prominently in the film.
My Friend Dahmer begins on a school bus. Kids chat with each other as the camera slowly pans over to a blonde youth sitting sullenly and blankly by himself. My Friend Dahmer makes it clear that this is the eponymous character, Jeffrey “Jeff” Dahmer (Ross Lynch). The school bus passes a jogger on the side of the road. Dahmer cooly watches the jogger as the bus passes, going so far as to get up and move to the back of the bus to gaze unabashedly at him. From the very start, Dahmer’s character exudes a feeling of unease and predatory appetite.
The audience is taken on a tour through the final months of Dahmer’s junior year, in which he sits as an outcast in class and at lunch. The film shows Dahmer walking down the road, picking up roadkill to dissolve in acid in a rudimentary “lab” that he works in behind his home. Dahmer’s family life is full of tension and exclusion. His father Lionel (Dallas Roberts) is an overworked chemist who wants his son to be more outgoing than he was. Lionel lives in constant conflict with Dahmer’s mother Joyce (Anne Heche) after her mental break and subsequent neuroses. Dahmer inhabits a near-separate existence within his own family. His parents focus most of their attention on their younger son Dave (Liam Koeth) and their own disagreements. His father makes misguided attempts at normalizing his admittedly disturbed son, while his mother uses him to rationalize and normalize her own dysfunctions.
Once senior year starts, Dahmer is adopted by a group of friends consisting of Derf (Alex Wolff), Mike (Harrison Holzer), and Neil (Tommy Nelson). They create the “Dahmer Fan Club,” in which they convince Dahmer to disrupt class and school by faking a mental and physical disability.
My Friend Dahmer mostly appears as a loosely connected string of scenes, but the cohesive narrative and structure of the film is defined by intense suspense and general unease. The audience, along with the other characters, feel visibly repulsed by Dahmer and his actions. At one point, Dahmer catches a fish and, instead of cutting the line to release it, stabs it numerous times in a fit of intense passion and desire. When asked by his friends why he did not just let it go, he responds with the famous line, “I wanted to see what it looked like on the inside.” The audience is treated to this and other moments that demonstrate the progression of tiny events that seemed to push Dahmer further and further towards the edge—his parents’ harmful attempts at raising him, their divorce, his accidental sexual experience with a male doctor, bullying, and uninhibited psychopathic tendencies. None of this is presented in such a way as to excuse Dahmer’s later murders, but merely to show a glimpse of the childhood of a serial killer. My Friend Dahmer, fortunately, does not seek to humanize the infamous murderer. Instead, Dahmer is presented in an appropriately negative light.
There are moments of levity throughout the film, but they are only brief reprieves from the crushing sense of dread that permeates the movie. Dahmer is seen spiraling further away from reality and social convention as his time in high school draws to a close. His parents’ dissolving marriage is the catalyst for his alcoholism, and his status as a social pariah isolates him from the few people his age he spent time with. My Friend Dahmer is by no means a fun movie to watch. It is actually actively unsettling, from the subject matter to the complete embodiment of the character by Lynch, to the knowledge of what Dahmer will go on to do after the credits roll. This is not to say, however, that My Friend Dahmer is a bad movie, or that no one should watch it. The film is engaging, interesting, and well-made. It does a very good at portraying a pivotal time in Dahmer’s life, and it is a movie people should see. Simply put, don’t expect to enjoy watching it.