The evolution from outcast to a serial killer, My Friend Dahmer, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Derf Backderf, looks at the infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s teenage years before he went on to rape, murder, dismember, and cannibalize 17 boys and men.
In the film, Dahmer (Ross Lynch), is very dissociated from the world around him, seemingly the strange and awkward oddball with very little friends. He occupies a lot of his time with an abnormal interest in animals, storing their remains in acid to witness the decomposition process. He eventually attracts the attention of a group of boys, including Derf Backderf (Alex Wolff), after performing bizarre pranks that involve mimicking seizures, later known as “Doing a Dahmer”. They form “The Dahmer Fan Club”, generating some genuine moments of friendship, but more than anything is used as a means to mock Dahmer. Meanwhile, his home life is no walk in the park either. With a stressed-out father (Dallas Roberts) who is more preoccupied with his crumbling marriage than his children, and a mom (Anne Heche) who struggles with her mental health, easily fostered a toxic and neglectful environment.
Director and writer Marc Meyers predominately explore whether Dahmer is a product of nature or nurture. Could Dahmer be a completely different person if someone had just cared more, it’s this question that becomes the most chilling part of the film. Multiple people in his life pick up on hints that things aren’t quite right, yet never take much initiative in trying to get him any help or support. It’s so easy to become caught up in the whirlwind of our own lives, we miss and ignore the signs of those struggling; how much, if any accountability is on the people around when someone spins out of control.
This analysis focuses on humanizing Dahmer before he became a full-blown monster, creating a sense of conflict between feeling sympathy and the recognition that he later went on to commit heinous acts. Many of the scenes involving Dahmer’s growing violent compulsions become all the more unsettling as a result. Ross Lynch’s ability to convey intensity yet subtly at the right moments is one of the best parts of the film: blank eyes, a slumped posture, and an uncaring disposition all while giving off a sense mundanity which captures the scariest part of Dahmer as a person. He was able to seamlessly blend into the world around him, relativity unnoticed, making an excellent cloak for the atrocities going on behind closed doors. Lynch ultimately proves he is more than simply the actor chosen due to his uncanny resemblance.
Although at times, there’s an imbalance between the humanization of Dahmer and the reality of his growing violent urges; it feels a bit too sympathetic, resembling a twisted coming of age drama, instead of an exploration into the life of a mentally unwell teenager. Despite Dahmer’s troubled childhood and the trauma he experienced, he was a real person who went on to murder real people. I can only imagine how any family members or friends of the victims would feel after watching a movie that offers so much compassion, but disrespectful is a word that comes to mind.
As well, an issue that is very much glossed over is that Dahmer predominantly targeted men of colour. During a brief, yet unnerving encounter in a hotel room for a class trip, Dahmer asks Charlie, a black classmate, “do your insides look the same as mine?” It serves as a reminder about the implicit racism in Dahmer’s murders but doesn’t offer much more than that. It’s a complete missed opportunity, especially considering it’s an area many films/documentaries about Dahmer fail to mention.
Overall, My Friend Dahmer offers an insightful and often chilling look into Dahmer’s early years, but some monsters are better left seen as just that, monsters.