David Berkowitz. John Wayne Gacy. Ted Bundy. Ed Gein. It’s fascinating how the names of some of North America’s most sensationalized serial killers have their names as familiar through cross-generational age groups as George Washington, Martin Luthur King and Michael Jackson. Pop culture seems equally enamored by rampages of the more infamous multiple murderers and have dedicated innumerable television episodes, podcasts and theatrical releases to their subjects taking dramatic licenses to piece together the anatomy of a killer.
One of the more interesting films to premiere with the weight of factual atrocities associated with the title character is My Friend Dahmer which dramatizes the complex high school life of renowned serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer who was responsible for the butchering of 17 young men between 1978 and the late 1980’s.
Based on the book by Derf Backderf and co-written by director Mark Meyers, My Friend Dahmer attempts to show us the events in the life of the protagonist before he began to take human lives. Former Disney alum teen idol Ross Lynch accepts the responsibility of channeling a teenaged Dahmer through the events of his life that would eventually culminate in the carnage associated with the name. Lynch embodies Dahmer as a loner with shrugged shoulders who meanders through his relative non-existence at both school and at home. With no friends and a family engorged on their own turmoil, Dahmer finds exultant refuge in a small shack in the woods by the family home where he experiments with dead animals soaked in acid. Dahmer does not hide his fascination with dead animal bones and his passion for the macabre would eventually lead his father (Dallas Roberts) to destroy his son’s secret sanctuary.
Meanwhile, at school, Dahmer becomes a casual teen celebrity among the halls when he begins acting out in relative random outbursts. The outbreaks of mania result in a bonding with three classmates that champion Dahmer’s ambition for attention and exploit his mannerisms for childish euphoria.
Being accepted as part of a group does little to slow the progression into madness that eventually ensues. As the marriage between Dahmer’s parents dissolves we witness the unhinged neuroses of his mother played wonderfully by Anne Heche. Her manic attention to only herself fuels Dahmer to begin drinking and it’s the alcohol fueled mindset that propels Dahmer to progress into darkness.
My Friend Dahmer concludes with the connection to Steven Hicks, a young hitchhiker who would become Dahmer’s first victim. We watch as Hicks and Dahmer drive off but only a title card reveals Hicks’ ultimate fate.
It is this restraint that separates My Friend Dahmer from its peers. Director Marc Meyers weaves us through a story that doesn’t humanize the man who would become Milwaukee’s most prolific cannibal. Nor does the film sensationalize the events to which Dahmer is associated. Instead, My Friend Dahmer focuses on what life offered a quiet outcast without any violent behaviors leading up to his first submitted impulse of murder.
And it’s this glimpse into a young man’s troubled past that propels My Friend Dahmer towards our strong film recommendation. The cast surrounding Dahmer’s coming-of-age are exceptional. In particular young Alex Wolff who as Dahmer’s best friend becomes a participant in a profile that would eventually result in horrific consequences.
Marc Meyers and his crew are able to flawlessly project the year 1978 around the characters. From the costume designs to the cars and music, the look and feel of 1978 is authentic. The references to the era may be subtle, but they are effective establishing the setting.
The challenge of making a serial killer movie interesting before the killer takes a life must have been daunting. But Mac Meyers maneuvers through the rapids determined to give backdrop to our subject. There are flaws. The film takes only a shallow toe dip into the homosexuality pool we now know Dahmer would eventually bathe. But the film doesn’t try to sensationalize anything. It stays the course and easily becomes one of the better serial killer prequels ever made.