♦ In his first occasional piece for Tripwire, Stephen Dalton takes a look at My Friend Dahmer, based on the graphic novel of the same name and showing at the London Film Festival…
MY FRIEND DAHMER
Director, screenwriter: Marc Meyers
Starring: Ross Lynch, Anne Heche, Alex Wolff, Dallas Roberts
Origin stories for fictional serial killers have a fruitful screen history, most recently with the award-wining TV hits Bates Motel and Hannibal. But a biopic depicting the formative years of a real mass murderer, whose crimes took place within living memory, is a far more sensitive prospect. My Friend Dahmer revisits the troubled schooldays of Jeffrey Dahmer, who later went on to rape, murder, dismember and cannibalise 17 victims between 1978 and 1991. It is based on the graphic memoir of the same name by Dahmer’s former classmate John “Derf” Backderf, a long-gestating labour of love which was finally published in its most complete edition in 2012.
Adapted for the screen by US indie director Marc Meyers on a very modest budget, My Friend Dahmer is an exercise in low-voltage suspense which carefully avoids gore, sensationalism or obvious horror tropes. The timeline ends just as Dahmer’s killing spree begins, and even his creepy early experiments with dead animals are depicted with methodical restraint. The resulting effect is quietly engrossing and oddly humane, less a lurid true-crime shocker than a forensic study in undiagnosed psychosis. World premiered at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival in April, it screens this week at the London Film Festival.
The setting is small-town Ohio in the mid 1970s. A misfit introvert with a stiff slouch and permanent deadpan expression, the teenage Jeffrey (Ross Lynch) lives with his younger brother and bickering parents in heavily wooded, semi-rural suburbia. An obsessive and solitary child, Jeffrey’s main hobby is collecting roadkill animals, then dissolving their flesh with acid to expose the bones and organs within. And yet, with his floppy blond moptop and thick-rimmed glasses, he still has a hint of sweet vulnerability beneath the troubled frown. At this stage he is more a young Kurt Cobain than a young Norman Bates.
On the surface, the Dahmers are a living advertisement for the middle-class, Middle American dream. But the family home seethes with tension and strife. While Jeffrey’s professional chemist father Lionel (Dallas Roberts) struggles in vain to motivate his weird son to take up more normal teen pursuits, his mentally fragile mother Joyce (Anne Heche) perpetually sours the domestic mood with stormy tantrums and psychotic episodes. Before long, an acrimonious divorce looms.
Inevitably, the socially awkward Dahmer is shunned, bullied and mocked at school. These scenes feel painfully plausible, with strong overtones of Stephen King’s Carrie. But then a more conventionally geeky gang including Backderf (Alex Wolff) adopt him as a kind of semi-ironic mascot, impressed by his habit of faking epileptic seizures to gain attention. The group’s embrace of their oddball classmate is hardly noble, but it helps to normalise him a little, introducing him to more routine adolescent distractions like alcohol and soft drugs.
My Friend Dahmer is not exactly a sympathetic portrait of a serial killer, but it is an even-handed case study of an isolated, damaged young man in urgent need of psychiatric help that never arrives. Backderf recently blamed Dahmer’s terrible crimes on “across the board failure” by everyone who knew him in childhood, especially the adults, but the casual cruelty of his teenage peers are factored into this story too, Backderf included. This story has a vague mea culpa subtext, a sense of the adult author reflecting ruefully on his own youthful lack of empathy.
Meyers goes the extra mile for authenticity, even shooting some scenes in Dahmer’s real childhood home in Bath, Ohio. Budgetary limitations are scarcely evident, although the film’s low-key indie naturalism occasionally feels a little underpowered and disjointed. And something has inevitably been lost in translation from page to screen, most notably Backderf’s imaginative Robert Crumb-style graphics, which hinted at future horrors by keeping Dahmer’s face in near-constant shadow.
Some events have been lightly embroidered by Meyers, including Dahmer’s comic encounter with US Vice President Walter Mondale during a school trip to Washington DC – in reality, the school party merely glimpsed Mondale in passing. A scene in which Backderf seems to narrowly dodge becoming Dahmer’s first murder victim also feels like a dramatic contrivance designed to amplify tension.
That said, My Friend Dahmer is engaging and impressive overall. The casting of wholesome boy-band singer Lynch as Dahmer is a gamble that pays off handsomely, his minimalist performance speaking volumes, while Heche is a magnetic scene-stealer as the combustible mother from hell. Like the highly personal memoir that inspired it, this film is a classy piece of work, an unflinching investigation into the banality of evil and darkness on the edge of town.