Words by Ashleigh Goodwin
When asking the ‘average’ person what their interests are, we’ve all heard the standard pastimes rattled off: socialising with friends and family, sporting activities, travelling, having a pint at the pub… And as I enter into the world of professionalism and small talk, I’ve realised this is a safe, relatable, and most importantly a socially acceptable list to recount in those awkward moments of introduction.
But it was after I inadvertently blurted out that my main interest were “serial killers”, with wide eyes and possibly over enthusiastic tone, in a work conference icebreaker not so long ago that I felt the pang of peer review and social acceptance. I don’t necessarily mean this is a bad interest, as I know many people who share it, but at the end of it all aren’t we all trying to fit in?
Due to this fascination, I’ve amassed bits of knowledge on Jeffrey Dahmer over the years from various sources: podcasts, autobiographies, biographies, films, interviews and documentaries. So, when I was offered the chance to sneak a first peak at the new biopic on the serial killer, My Friend Dahmer, I was genuinely overjoyed – jumping on a train from Bristol back to Birmingham to make the advanced screening at The Electric Cinema, as organised by Film Hub Midlands.
My Friend Dahmer is based on the 2012 graphic novel/memoir by American cartoonist John ‘Derf’ Backderf. Derf was an acquaintance of Jeffrey Dahmer’s throughout their time at Eastview Junior High and Revere High School from 1968 to 1978. The film adaptation doesn’t show this entire timeline or solely focus on Backderf’s friendship with Dahmer, like the graphic novel, but rather follows Dahmer throughout his four years in high school, charting his binge-drinking, the separation of his parents, his fascination for dead animal experimentation, and his desperate cries for attention to gain acceptance amongst his peers. The film shows Dharmer’s life up to the time just before his first human murder, two weeks after his graduation, ending with him picking up his first victim – hitchhiker Steven Mark Hicks.
My Friend Dahmer is also presented through the eyes of Dahmer himself, as opposed to the singular perspective of Derf in his graphic novel. Director and screenwriter, Marc Meyers, explains this switch was because “we’re all most interested in the life and descent of Jeff Dahmer. It’s the mix of Jeff’s school and home life that is the most compelling and important part of the story“.
Meyers does a great job with this film, carefully executing a cautionary tale that could have easily descended into the common pitfalls of the serial killer genre, such as glamorisation, dramatisation and desensitisation. Yet the way he captures Dahmer’s declining psyche, using subtle editing throughout the film, at times feels nothing short of masterful.
Meyers utilises all available factors, such as sound, the transition between frames, and the use of both establishing and close up shots, to create a deliberate and careful portrayal of Dahmer’s chaotic decent to the point of no return. I’ll admit, however, on occasion at the beginning the film felt slow and I was initially frustrated we were getting a lacklustre portrayal of the situation. But as My Friend Dahmer enters into its second half you realise this is a deliberate move to show the progression of Dahmer’s character and how he eventually gets to the point that he does.
During his school life, Dahmer was notorious for regularly faking seizures and mimicking cerebral palsy through speech impediments and certain ticks, in a bid to attraction attention from his peers. This worked too, as Derf and his classmates formed a “Dahmer Fan Club” due to how entertaining and interesting the found their ‘friend’ Jeffrey.
Derf, along with other peers, paid Dahmer to do “his act” at Summit Mall one afternoon; Derf has stated the event went down as “legendary”, as Jeffrey Dahmer spent around two hours terrorising shoppers by shouting in their faces, flinging their food trays from tables, and faking seizures in the middle of the complex. I felt this scene did a great job of summarising the tragedy that was Dahmer’s teenage years; the disconnect he had from everyone, his desperate need to fit in, and how he ultimately was nothing more than comical fodder amongst his peers.
Meyers could have easily set this up as a purley comical scene, but uses it as a pivotal point within the film to show the severity of Dahmer’s rapidly declining grasp of normalcy. Again, the editing is great here and shows the raw emotion by using a series of close-up frames that focus solely on a tormented looking Dahmer. Quick fades and dissolves are then used to fit the crescendo of a piano instrumental in the background, effectively building the emotion of the narrative and conveying an increasing despair without any dialogue.
However, the main highlight of the film is indisputably Ross Lynch’s performance as the younger Jeffrey Dahmer. Lynch was previously known for his work on the Disney Channel, and this departure makes his delivery even more surreal whilst showcasing the wider berth of his acting skills. Lynch manages to pin-point Dahmer’s character, not only in his immediate appearance (Lynch is virtually unrecognisable with his mop like hair and large glasses) but in his slouched posture, his introverted mannerisms, and most strikingly his facial expressions and eye contact which convey emotion in each scene without saying a word.
Meyers also finds balance in his execution of Dahmer’s character, showing the stereotypically introverted and sinister Dahmer but also his collected and composed nature in a very self-aware way. This is reflected in the story of how Dahmer called the President’s office on a school trip to Washington and arranged a meeting with his friends and Vice-President Walter Mondale. Lynch re-enacts this with a great calmness and slight arrogance – the more confident side of Dahmer gives the character further depth and an indication of his multifaceted personality, which became a vital part of the man in later life.
Lynch’s performance is also made so captivating because many of the experiences and situations Dahmer faced through adolescence are those that can be commonplace for any teenager, such as loneliness, negligence and the struggle for acceptance. This humanises Lynch’s character, as it isn’t hard to relate certain aspects of his demeanour to someone you know. Backderf even stated that Lynch’s portrayal of Dahmer will “make viewers uncomfortable because it’s so familiar.”
My main gripe, however, is that I feel My Friend Dahmer portrays the ‘Dahmer Fan Club’ to be more compassionate than was perhaps strictly true – especially judging by Derf’s own account in his graphic novel, which repeatedly stated that generally they excluded Dahmer, didn’t give him much concern, and pretty much kept him around for entertainment.
However, in the film there are a handful of scenes where members of the group question if it’s “mean how [we] treat Dahmer” and later on that they should “leave him alone”. None of this is reflected in Derf’s original recount and feels as though it has been thrown in to the film to make his peers appear more sympathetic, or to make them seem more like invested acquaintances than they were.
This is demonstrated most prominently within the penultimate scene between Dahmer and Derf in the car outside Jeffrey’s house; Derf, after disassociating himself from Dahmer due to his overbearing weirdness, hesitantly discusses heading off to college and Dahmer’s future plans. At this point in Derf’s graphic novel I was practically begging for someone to ask Dahmer ‘are you okay?’, but it never came. By introducing the disjointed, flippant interests in Dahmer’s welfare at this stage in the film adaptation it felt unnecessary, disingenuous, and took away the severity of hopelessness and isolation of the central character.
Although also towards the end of the film the narrative shows Dahmer’s former friends and his parents all leaving him, instilling the audience with a heart-sinking feeling as we expect the inevitable. The scene where Dahmer’s mother, Joyce, leaves with his brother, David, is done in such a blasé way it almost becomes comical, with Meyers using this to encapsulate the tragedy of Dahmer’s teenage relationships and how utterly alone he really was. After Joyce leaves, the scene is deathly quiet as Dahmer falls to the floor and cries. You can see the angst and conflict in Lynch’s face, so much so you could arguably mark the point where all hope is lost for Jeffrey Dahmer.
There is a further absence of any full discussion about Dahmer’s struggle with his sexuality. There are a couple of scenes in My Friend Dahmer that hint towards this inner conflict, but this could have been expanded on rather than being just an undertone as it is such a vital part in the killer’s motives and central to the whole character of Jeffrey Dahmer.
I also have a feeling the film may hold more appeal to those with a pre-existing interest in Dahmer. For those with little interest in the notorious serial killer, it may seem slow paced and potentially anticlimactic and we don’t see any of what Dahmer is most known for, so I would recommend reading Derf’s graphic novel for a bit of background.
This being said, My Friend Dahmer carries a lot for all film lovers to enjoy, such as the aforementioned performance from Lynch and the evident craft put into each scene; the colour pallet for the film is really enjoyable, recreating the era through a sepia quality and giving a portrayal of Ohio within the late-sixties that feels authentic and rich.
Overall, Meyers presents an honest look at Jeffery Dahmer’s unsettling and upsetting childhood. The film neither excuses nor sympathises with his actions, but still shows the extent to which Dahmer’s traumas and inner demons grew through the negligence of those around him, and eventually consumed him, in a process that is both fascinating and heart-wrenching to watch.
My Fiend Dahmer offers its audience a glimpse into the serial killer’s adolescence without assigning blame on certain events or situations that lead to his fate. But rather the narrative explores the factors that shaped Dahmer into the individual he became, without trying to answer the ‘nature Vs nurture’ debate – a conversation arguably best left to both the audience and wider society. Something to remember during that uncomfortable small talk at the office Christmas party.
My Friend Dahmer – official trailer
My Friend Dahmer is out in general release from Friday 1st June – coming to both independent and mainstream cinemas across the UK. For more on My Friend Dahmer, visit www.filmrise.com/film/my-friend-dahmer