"My Friend Dahmer" is haunting, which, you know, makes sense
When I bought my ticket for “My Friend Dahmer,” I was certain if it didn’t work, it would be because of the subject matter. Certainly, I assumed, if there was a flaw to be found, it would be in finding a balance when portraying the teenage years of someone who murdered more than a dozen people.
That is not the case. Based on the graphic novel by the same name (written by a classmate of Jeffrey Dahmer, Derf, who’s a main character in the film), “My Friend Dahmer” provides background, not excuses for the future serial killer. What it doesn’t do is give much in the way of purpose.
The graphic novel is written from Derf’s perspective, while the film is frequently split between his and Dahmer’s. It can do this because of interviews Dahmer gave following his arrest in 1991. This helps deepen the narrative by giving us a look into his troubled adolescent years, perhaps providing some explanation into where things all went wrong.
Of course, the film opens with Dahmer already knee-deep in roadkill collecting and flesh dissolving, so; you know, make of that what you will. Director Marc Meyers pulls no punches, and does a marvelous job building the world of Bath, Ohio. The crew shot in the house Dahmer grew up in, used local bands to score the film and shot locally.
It all feels like the Midwest, from the high school to the woods that Dahmer spends just a little too much time in. All of that works well. The conversations with his exasperated father, the performance by Ross Lynch as Dahmer himself and one scene in particular near the climax of the film… well, I won’t spoil it, but it harkens back to an excellent scene in “Zodiac” that I’m very fond of.
What that doesn’t do is make up for the split narrative the film deals with. Who is this movie really about? Derf, or Dahmer? It would have been far more successful if it had chosen one character and stuck with it. Instead, it can’t decide whether to chew on Derf’s guilt or Dahmer’s dark path. They’re both worthy ideas to chew one, but instead they wind up being half-baked.
The entire film is a thought exercise, really. Could someone have done more for Dahmer while he was in high school? Or before that? The film gently poses these questions, and let’s them gently waft through the air, but it never hammers the audience with them. It’s more important to know that Dahmer was mistreated in high school, that his life was difficult and that we’ve all known someone like him.
That in itself is haunting in its own way, no matter where those kids end up.