“What do you want to be when you grow up?” A common question to pose to a group of teens approaching the end of high school. But in Marc Meyers’ My Friend Dahmer, the words reverberate chillingly thanks to its now notorious principal subject.
Sitting uncomfortably with the knowledge of what Jeffrey Dahmer would become in his adult years, it is the suggestion, allusion and all that is hinted at and withheld in Meyers’ film which leaves a traumatic mark. It is all that doesn’t happen, all that we expect but which does not transpire and the sense of unnerving dread felt throughout that creates moments of heart-stopping anguish. We are witness to the calm before the storm, the formation of one of America’s most notorious serial killers.
Jeff (a magnetic, deeply disquieting Ross Lynch) is a simple, admittedly unusual young man whose troubled personal existence couples with an innate evil to create a monster. Struggling through the misery of school, he will be adopted as a twisted mascot of sorts for a group of peers intent on leaving their disruptive mark before heading off to college. The school environment is more Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused than Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, and this colourful, frequently playful and comic aesthetic jars devilishly with the black, sadistic heart that beats to the drum of Dahmer’s growing rage.
If the eyes offer a window to a person’s soul then the first frame of My Friend Dahmer make it very clear that Jeff’s is a blackened, demonic one. Big, metal-framed glasses sit off kilter and, further, he looks through the window of a bus at a jogger running by. Breaking through these fragile layers of glass over time we come to learn Jeff’s true nature but even at this early stage his deadened gaze betrays murderous urges. The lone runner on the road outside will fall prey to his stares several times throughout the film but there are smaller fish to fry to begin with, and animals to dissolve in acid.
“I pick up road kill, but I’m trying to quit,” says Jeff to neighbours who label him a freak. Lynch’s laboured movement, hunched shoulders, snarled lip and vacant mien are immediately unsettling and once friends grow weary of his twisted mockery of feigning epileptic fits to draw attention, they genuinely fear him. When this expression breaks into a smile, it is more disconcerting still. Dallas Roberts features as Dahmer Sr., and in his attempts to mould his son, by no means bend him to his will, but simply guide him down a path away from seclusion towards friendships and normality, we feel the beast inside him growing.
Adding to this a history of mental illness on his mother’s side (Anne Heche) the recipe for disaster is near complete. Marital disintegration, the lack of a support system and being goaded into more ludicrous acts only pile further momentum behind a snowballing impulse to do wrong, to commit heinous atrocities. The pacing of Meyers’ film sometimes drags a little but like a slow-moving training heading for the end of the line we can see the danger ahead and are powerless to prevent it. This frustration, and a gripping central performance, make My Friend Dahmer a film you can’t pull your eyes away from.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens