Serial killers have been the subjects of both fictional feature and documentary films for some time now. Something about the heinous nature of their crimes makes for compelling storytelling if nothing else. Along with that, there is a subculture which is not only fascinated by these people and their stories…by the psychology of it all. My Friend Dahmer certainly caters to that audience but also paints a much broader, more palatable picture of one of the most notorious killers in history.
There was no secret that Ross Lynch gave a terrifying and unforgettable performance as Jeffrey Dahmer. I’d heard nothing but high praise for the quality of his portrayal, but he still managed to exceed my expectations in remarkable fashion…a candidly evocative performance that will haunt you for days. From the look to his body language, there was something broken in the way he carried himself. A silent storm behind the eyes. Playing the infamous killer in his formative years must have been a daunting task in and of itself, maybe even more challenging for an actor whose resume consisted of mostly Disney titles. But in this role, he left all that behind and managed to connect to something deeper, more corporeal beneath the surface that reached through the screen. Truly transformative performances are scarce because they require so much of the actor, but this was definitely a career making effort. The quality of his depiction is unquestionable and immediately puts him in contention for Best Actor, if not at the front of the pack. Although the Academy may choose to go a different direction, Lynch should have filmmakers lining up to work with him regardless of awards recognition.
Besides putting Lynch in the lead, Stephanie Holbrook did a fantastic job casting the compatible talent in the three most crucial roles. Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts turned in strong complementary performances as Jeffrey’s parents, Joyce and Lionel. Heche was wonderfully manic, the mother freshly returned to the family dynamic after a stint in the mental institution. Her character, Joyce, was somewhat of a stability vacuum that sucked the air out of the traditional family structure. Spending all her energy in the wrong places was a source of constant frustration for her family, but it was a good turn for the veteran actress who also provided much of the laughter present in the film. Roberts had the chance to stretch his legs a bit with a meatier role in this. As Jeffrey’s father, there is plenty of guilt swirling about as he senses some unusual tendencies in his son and perhaps even recognizes the makings of something more sinister, but his attention is often focused on Joyce in her more colorful moments. The well versed character actor had some heavy lifting to do in terms of pushing the narrative but he rose to the occasion as one of the stronger elements in this film. His exasperation and desperation went from a simmer to a boil as Roberts captured the relentless frustration of a man trapped by circumstance. Between the two actors, they helped illustrate the troubled home life which partially acted as a catalyst in Dahmer’s disturbing evolution.
Writer/Director Marc Meyers adapted the screenplay from Derf Backderf’s graphic novel of the same name in which he recollects part of Dahmer’s teenage years and a brief friendship with him. Meyers decided to focus his story through a prism of relationships with family and friends…but it isn’t told from Derf’s perspective. Instead, Jeffrey is the main character in a story where he’s an outcast at school and watching his family unit dissolve under intense discord. This was an interesting decision because it forced Meyers to paint Dahmer as somewhat of a sympathetic character. Taking the entirety of his actions into account, it’s easier to see the makings of the monster he’d become but, contextually, this film ends before he’s killed anyone. I don’t think the intent was to romanticize the notorious serial killer as a victim of bullying and an unstable home life (although some will probably feel that way), but there’s a certain acknowledgement of guilt on Derf’s part for not knowing and maybe even catalyzing Jeff’s behavior. That feeling lingers over the whole film without ever really taking sides…letting the audience make their own judgments. Meyers also made the decision to shoot much of this film in Dahmer’s actual childhood home which quietly resonated with authenticity and undoubtedly left its mark on the cast. Making a film of this nature is tricky, but he navigated those waters with grace and his direction pulled some compelling narrative performances from the cast. He’ll likely have his pick of the litter when it comes to which project he dives into next.
The overall quality of this film was impressive as well, creating an immaculate space for this story to unfold. Production Designer Jennifer Klide has a strong understanding and respect for the aesthetics of this film. Carmen Navis’s set design and Carla Shivener’s costume design were key elements that quietly added layers of authenticity to the project and blurred the lines of disbelief for the audience. Director of Photography Daniel Katz painted a world not rich in color from behind the camera. His framing and use of natural light made for some clean and often appealing shots which played a tremendous role in crafting the look and tone of the film as a whole. Andrew Hollander added on a score that’s layered with subtle intensity which plays a large part when telling a story like this one. The score doesn’t dominate the film, but serves nicely to help serve up its strongest elements.
While this is a good movie, it likely didn’t transcended the barrier into a great film but there is still plenty to like about it. The story is well paced and the dialogue is well written, plus it’s anchored by one incredible performance at its core. It’s easy to see why this movie gained traction while going through the film festival circuit.
Recommendation: If you’re up for it, Ross Lynch’s portrayal of Dahmer is absolutely worth the money. Be warned: it is a powerful and disturbing performance. This isn’t going to be for everyone, but it isn’t abhorrently violent or sexual like some movies about killers might be. It’s the cerebral and psychological aspects of this tale which makes it work.