It’s not his tendency to dissolve animals in acid that makes the pre-notoriety Jeffrey Dahmer a figure of horror in Marc Meyers’ slow burn biopic. Neither is it his penchant for violent outbursts and harrowing fantasies. It is his eyes. The leering orbs of lifelessness that stare out through oversized glasses at a world that does not understand their owner. ‘I’m just like everybody else’ he says.
A challenging contradiction in our sensationalist society is that serial killers are considered heinously repellent in reality and morbidly compelling in fiction. A gruesome biopic could have been spawned from the life of Jeffrey Dahmer. It is, then, a mercy that Meyers’ film returns to the high school years that preceded Dahmer’s spree of 1978 to 1991 – in which seventeen men and boys were subjected to necrophilia, cannibalism and dismemberment – as related in the graphic novel of John ‘Derf’ Backderf.
In film and book alike, Meyers and Backderf, a school ‘friend’ of Dahmer, question whether it could have been predicted that a social outcast would become the so-called Milwaukee Monster. The short answer is yes. Lonely, isolated and disturbed, the sexually frustrated Dahmer, as portrayed here by Disney Channel stalwart Ross Lynch, looks and acts exactly like a budding serial killer.
When not collecting roadkill, Dahmer is stalking the local doctor who runs near his home and imitating the cerebral palsy suffering decorator hired by his similarly troubled mother (Anne Heche). The latter curiosity is a quirk egged on by his ‘friends’ at school who, including Backderf (Alex Wolff), form the cruelly ironic ‘Dahmer Fan Club’. It is an admirable quality of the film that precious few on screen are party to sympathetic portrayals. Dahmer’s parents and teachers are oblivious to his needs, whilst his peers are wholly unlikeable.
The film is set in the months leading up to the titular character’s graduation from is Ohio high school in 1974, that event being two weeks prior to his first murder. These not being especially action packed weeks, it would be fair to say that My Friend Dahmer rests entirely on characterisation and performance.
To this end, Lynch gives a neatly dark turn as Dahmer – looking oddly like Matt Damon in Behind the Candelabra – whilst Wolff is strong as his more charismatic counterpart. Neither, however, have quite the spark here to enable the film to take off. The film is quietly compelling but never entirely gripping.
Indeed, Meyers’ pursuit of sensitivity does only to strand his film in a chasm of indecisiveness. Whilst he is not daring enough to suggest that Dahmer deserves empathy as a bullied loner, Meyers is equally dissatisfied with the idea of casting him as villain. Such nuance is commendable but flattening. Dahmer is, perhaps, just a little too mundane to hold the spotlight – not that his later crimes deserve one.