Dir.: Marc Meyers; Cast: Ross Lynch, Anne Heche, Dallas Roberts, Alex Wolff, Tommy Nelson, Harrison Holzer, Vincent Kartheiser; USA 2017, 107 min.
Marc Meyers (Harvest) scores a winner with this brilliant screen adaptation of ‘Derf’ Backderff’s comic book tracing the final year of the legendary serial killer Jeff Dahmer.
Meyers’ work is best known in the US but this fascinating biopic thriller resonates far and wide due to the universal appeal of its gruesome subject matter. Born in Wisconsin, Jeffrey Dahmer grew up in the small town of Bath, Ohio, where Meyers captures the final year at college before his fragmented psyche exploded, leading to the murders of seventeen young men. Disney star Ross Lynch is cast against type turning in an excruciatingly realistic performance that brings with it an understanding of what drove Dahmer to murder, cannibalism and necrophilia. And the idea that society does not produce serial killers, but is in some way responsible for their existence – soon begins to percolate through the subconscious.
Dahmer’s senior year at Revere High School ran from 1977-78. And we learn how his role as an outsider was pre-determined by his dysfunctional family life where the atmosphere was fraught with discord: Father Lionel (Roberts), a chemist, and his wife Joyce (Heche) argue non-stop: Joyce is undergoing psychiatric treatment for her belligerent attitude to almost everything, but mainly her family. Only Jeffrey’s younger brother Dave (who name was changed due to legal anonymity), seems to find parental approval, largely due to the masculine attributes he shares with father: Both revel in the seclusion of the laboratory, avoiding social interaction, despite Lionel asking his son to develop a more outgoing attitude.
At school, Jeffrey’s obsession with dead animals is well known, he collects carcasses and dissolves them in acid, playing with the bones. His three ‘friends’ Derf (Wolff as the future comic book author), Neil (Nelson) and Mike (Holzer) make full use of Jeffrey’s willingness to be the class clown: they even pay him to perform his antics, which run to mock epileptic seizures and cerebral palsy routines in the local Mall. But Jeffrey is no fool: he is perfectly aware that he doesn’t belong and takes to drinking spirits and developing an early gay crash on a jogger (Kartheiser), who nearly becomes his first victim. Aware of his sexual orientation, Dahmer is condemned to silence, since there is no opportunity to discuss or explore his sexuality in this macho mid-western state – and little has changed, even today. And so, Jeffrey ‘sleep-walks’ into his first murder, picking up a hitchhiker three weeks after his graduation (another milestone unacknowledged by his family).
From today’s perspective, it seems incredible that the early warning signs of Jeffrey’s fragmentation were not picked up at school, and that a court should find him “mentally sane” to stand trial in 1991. His murder by a fellow inmate serves as a sad but logical epitaph to a life in which the troubled 34 year-old actually kept the remains of some his victims for company. Meyers’ detached case study shows Jeffrey Dahmer as a spectator, looking in on his own life. He is unable to identify with anything alive, his sexuality making him even more of an outcast. His cerebral intelligence was no help: his pent up emotions were so over-powering that he could only find an outlet in physical cruelty, in revenge for being locked out of everyone’s life. DoP Daniel Katz’s wide-screen images underline the joyless grey world he experienced, an arctic emotional landscape. Lynch’s peerless performance underlines the fact that Dahmer was actually handsome, but lacked the wherewithal to connect physically or emotionally with anyone alive. AS
ON RELEASE FROM 1 June 2018