I admit it. I have a morbid fascination with serial killers and their grisly misdeeds. To imagine a person capable of such horrors is simply the epitome of "watching a train wreck", and I find it too irresistible to look away. From Ed Gein to John Wayne Gacy, I've found myself pouring over the macabre details of their heinous crimes wondering what in the world led them to such a drastic conclusion. At what point do these sometimes outwardly benign people crack? Were they born sadistic or did trauma in their childhood lead them to a life of terror? Though not always the case, one thought that I always go back to is that most of these monsters were adorable babies doted on by loving parents at one point in their lives. Many of them were likely average kids going through the motions of early childhood development like the rest of us. Sure, some of them endured terrible childhoods that certainly informed a future penchant for violence, yet many others moved through the world just like any of us. They had families, they went to school, and they had friends. The new film MY FRIEND DAHMER explores these questions with a snapshot of the infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer during his awkward yet fairly innocuous high school years, and reminds us that even the most sick criminal in the making could be hiding right beside us in plain sight.
Based on the graphic novel of the same name and written by a classmate of the notorious cannibal, MY FRIEND DAHMER is a firsthand account by writer/artist John "Derf" Backderf about his brief friendship with a young Jeffrey Dahmer. The two attended high school together and struck up a friendship after Dahmer became somewhat of a class clown during his senior year partaking in outlandish outbursts and stunts that, although certainly odd, helped elevate his popularity among his fellow students. Goaded by Backderf and his newfound posse of pals, Dahmer even managed to pull a prank where he appeared in the group yearbook photos for every single club in the school- a pretty hilarious feat that took on a much more sinister tone as the future madman's unsmiling visage pops up page after page. In a creepy twist, the final version of the yearbook was published with his face blacked out in every picture, making his appearance all the more eerie.
Dahmer's well-documented obsession with collecting roadkill (and a later propensity for killing the animals himself) in order to "see what they look on the inside" is treated rather casually. Though his friends agree that his hobby is creepy and his father eventually demands he tear down the clubhouse that houses his "studies", director Marc Meyers seems to indicate that even a ghastly pastime such as this doesn't automatically point to the horrid acts that Dahmer would be capable of in the near future. Sometimes such a fascination begets surgeons, veterinarians, or even undertakers, but in this case the path obviously diverged in a most hideous direction.
Meyers also does a great job illustrating a family life that, while less than ideal, didn't exactly seem like the kind of horrendous upbringing that might explain Dahmer's ghastly demons. Yes, his mom was a manic depressive who didn't provide the most stable home environment, and yes, this led to the inevitable breakup of his family. But legions of people go through similar situations in their adolescence without growing up to perform unimaginable atrocities.
Among all these details, though, a startlingly compelling performance by former Disney star Ross Lynch is the driving force behind the origin story. Lynch completely transforms himself into the troubled youth with a fascinating combination of body language and understated inner strife lurking just under the surface of his stone-faced facade. Though he perfectly nails Dahmer's overall dull demeanor, Lynch's subtle yet complex performance throughout the film suggests a more dynamic dialogue going on inside the head of the still-innocent and conflicted young man. It's really exciting to see a young performer shun the vapid overacting of the Disney kid-sitcom universe and emerge with an incredibly powerful portrayal of such a provocative subject. I can't wait to see what else is in store for the talented actor.
Taken at face value, MY FRIEND DAHMER reads like a heartbreaking coming of age underdog story where you root for the young protagonist to overcome his obstacles and come into his own. Only this time, just when you start to empathize with the lead character, you remember that he goes on to live a life filled with gruesome mayhem. I loved the way the film walked this line, and if, like me, you have wondered about the events leading up to a maniac's break with reality, you will enjoy MY FRIEND DAHMER as much as I did. Be on the look out for the film when it opens in theater on November 3rd.
Until next time...
aka Annette Kellerman