My Friend Dahmer (2017)

My Friend Dahmer first published by RealCrime Magazine

The actions undertaken by Jeffrey Dahmer in his adulthood are well documented. One of the twentieth century’s most notorious serial killers, between 1978 and 1991 he raped and murdered 17 male pickups, committing various outrages (dismemberment, necrophilia, cannibalism, trophy preservation) on their corpses. My Friend Dahmer, however, is not so much about the monster as about his making: Jeffrey’s formative years in high school, when his home life was breaking apart, when his morbid obsessions were just starting to solidify into something beyond adolescent fantasy, and when a friendship of sorts evolved between him and classmate John ‘Derf’ Backderf. 

When we first meet Jeffrey (Ross Lynch), he is already a loner whose friendlessness and growing fascination with “what’s inside” animal cadavers are concerning his chemist father Lionel (Dallas Roberts). A then closeted gay in a school where homophobic bullying was rife, Jeffrey casts a dreamy eye on a doctor (Vincent Kartheiser) whose jogging route passes the Dahmer home. Yet being a misfit is just part of the American high school experience, and Dahmer, like so many of his peers, is merely looking for acceptance, belonging and love – something that he is not getting at home from his mentally unstable mother Joyce (Anne Heche) who openly favours his little brother, or from emotionally distant Lionel who is distracted by a bitter divorce. That said, Dahmer’s domestic life seems less troubled than that of the obviously unhinged drug dealer Figgs (Miles Robbins). It is only our foreknowledge of what Jeffrey will become that allows us to register all the early warning signs, right down to Joyce’s edict (regarding her own half-baked efforts at making dinner), heavily ironised for the viewer by the weight of future history: “New house rule: we eat our mistakes.” 

In the absence of love, Jeffrey settles for attention, ‘spazzing’ at school in a noisy display of mental impairment. It is a performance that serves only to alienate him more – except from Derf (Alex Wolff) and his friends, who discern in Jeffrey’s questionably funny pranks an opportunity to disrupt the school, and quickly form a ‘Dahmer Fan Club’, lending Jeffrey’s oddest behaviours a cult following.

Adapted by writer/director Marc Meyers from Backderf’s graphic novel about his real-life relationship with Jeffrey, the film traces a friendship which at first allows Jeffrey briefly to flourish socially, before turning toxic as aspiring artist cum rebel Derf idolises, exploits and encourages Jeffrey’s weirdness as a way to kick against the school’s conformity, without realising that he is enabling a future serial killer’s worst antisocial impulses. There is no soft-pedalling here on Derf’s casual cruelty, which lends irony to the word ‘friend’ in the film’s title – and the film’s tragedy is our suspicion that Jeffrey, though clearly damaged from the start, might, in other circumstances, have turned out alright.

© Anton Bitel