Friday, July 6, 2018


In his late teens Jeffery Dahmer is withdrawn and fascinated by life, death and decomposition. He has a hobby shed out the back of his place where he keeps roadkill in jars of acid to watch them slowly dissolve. Back in the house his mother has been released from psychiatric care but is as difficult as she ever was. His father is worried about his son, admitting that his attempts to encourage Jeff to join in at school is a reflection of his shame at his own social inertia. The houses of the neighbourhood are well aloof, planted like acorns in huge forested area of Ohio. If there was a Huck Finn moment or two in childhood the teenage years have stamped it into the moss.

At school Jeffery doesn't engage. His dead eyes observe passages and obstructions from behind his golden wave of fringe. One day, taking a chance, he fakes an epileptic seizure in the hallway, winning him instant notoriety. A small group of friends watch as he repeats the performance to various scales and they form a kind of dare club around him, taking him into their group but egging him on to more performance. He understands the exploitation but also knows that it forms a real point of contact and provides a kind of high school career.

Nothing like this can last and it gets harder for him to comply when his home life is degenerating into insanity and divorce. Can he embrace the abnormal, knowing it is the extent of his acceptance, when his home is so threatening?

You know what Dahmer became. It's why you bought the ticket. And that's why the what-happened-next titles at the end are needless here at the dawn of the Google aeon. But if you buy your ticket with the notion of seeing a serial killer in training, a kind of true-life Dexter, go and see something else; that's not this film.

The source is not crime reports or police files, it's a personal memoir by cartoonist John Backderf who went to school with Dahmer. Backderf's story is told through his own memoir. He knows you know, too, which is why he didn't call it My Friend Jeff. But he keeps it to what he knew of his classmate at the time (with some supplemental research for completeness). Backderf's story describes someone who is not a monster in waiting but a vulnerable kid squeezed into a series of losing breaks. The novel is kept in an adolescent style of stretched anatomy tempered with a strong knowledge of the grammar of comics and a great sense of atmosphere. That is the thing that the film recognises and runs with. This is an unflinching portrayal of youth coping with the ugliness that the developing observation of the teenager comes to see in the world around.

Ross Lynch, Disney alumnus, is in every scene in the title role and allows us into the strolling detachment engine of his character. He takes Backderf's portrayed foward lope with the hands hanging idle in front perfectly so it it seems natural but feels wrong. He must act through Dahmer's dead expression as effectively as if he were masked by prosthetics. It's a strongly sustained performance thanklessly restrained. Anne Heche (almost unrecognisable)  hurts her scenes with Mrs Dahmer's disorder. There are significant shortcuts taken with her story for narrative tightness but we get enough of her to know her importance. Dallas Roberts makes us squirm with his self loathing. Alex Wolff brings a similar severity and vulnerability to Backderf that effectively extends his work in Hereditary.

You'll find the decor of its era and might even hum along to a lot of the music but the lougnerooms and kitchens feel lived in and the hits and memories are kept digetically to what's on the radio or playing on tape in the car. We're not here to titter at the time. And we are not here to bathe in an origins of a supervillain. We see a vulnerable teenager and his exploitation at the hands of his peers (Backderf does not let himself off lightly in this story). He just happened to become one of the most nightmarish criminals in living memory. It's familiar but it's infamous. It's home but it's hell. See the movie for the interpretation and read the book for the detail. If you do both or either you won't find a monster explained but you will, I think, be reacquainted with some of the sour tastes of high school. Would you be ready for that?

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