“I like to pick up roadkill but I’m trying to quit,” says teenager Jeff (Ross Lynch) early on in My Friend Dahmer. It’s a knowingly dark line in a film that frequently flirts with the extreme darkness of its subject matter without ever indulging in shock and gore. Because, yes, this is Jeffrey Dahmer we’re talking about, the infamous serial killer who murdered 17 men between 1978 and 1991 before he was jailed in the Columbia Correctional Institute, and then beaten to death by his cellmate.
This isn’t Making A Murderer: Teen Edition, though. ‘Becoming Dahmer’ would have been a more apt title, as none of the Wisconsin native’s unsettling crimes are portrayed here. Instead, director Marc Meyers adapts John ‘Derf’ Backderf’s same-named graphic novel. As one of Dahmer’s high-school friends, Backderf was there for Dahmer’s formative years, and they’re played out here in slow-burn detail as Dahmer struggles with his fractured home life, with school, and with his own burgeoning homosexuality.
The disturbing moments are often beautifully underplayed, from Dahmer leading a happy dog into the woods, to the teen’s casual questioning of a black classmate’s skin colour. Meyers forgoes slasher movie cliche to perfectly capture an understated ’70s mood, and his star – former Disney kid Lynch – is equally mesmerising; his often expressionless, dead-eyed but hugely physical performance is a revelation.
Why did Dahmer become obsessed with dead things? Would it have turned out differently if his parents (played with grotesque glee by Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts) hadn’t abandoned him? Meyers refrains from offering easy answers, perhaps because there aren’t any, instead watching Dahmer as he careens towards the inevitable. The result is quiet and lingering, blowing apart the Hollywood notion of what constitutes a psychopath to reveal the troubling, unsettling reality.
This review originally published in Crack magazine.