The name Jeffrey Dahmer evokes horror and fascination—like Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and other real-life monsters. So a movie called My Friend Dahmer sounds ironic.
It's not. And the 2017 film, starring Disney Channel alum Ross Lynch (Austin & Ally), isn't a deliberate shocker or tasteless shlock. Instead, My Friend Dahmer is a chilling look at the future killer’s final year of high school, 1977-’78, already an established loner well on his way to almost inconceivable infamy.
Between the end of ’78 and ’91, Dahmer would rape, murder and dismember 17 boys and men, sometimes indulging in necrophilia and cannibalism, reserving body parts of some victims as trophies. My Friend Dahmer doesn't portray nor even refer to these monstrous acts. There's little overt violence.
The movie is a prelude to those horrors. It ends with 18-year-old Dahmer picking up Steven Martin Hicks, a hitchhiker, who was never (we're told as concluding credits run) seen again. Dahmer’s killing orgy is a postlude to the film.
Based on John “Derf” Backderf's graphic novel, the film unfolds as a series of vignettes depicting Dahmer’s troubled family life and the small clique of high-school friends who adopted him his senior year, almost as a kind of mascot. Derf (Alex Wollf) is an aspiring cartoonist who brings painfully awkward Dahmer into his group, mostly because of Dahmer’s willingness to pull wild, embarrassing stunts—such as making wild gesticulations, then pantomiming a seizure.
Dahmer’s parents are in their own emotional seizure. Neurotic mom Joyce (Anne Heche) drives Jeffrey’s frazzled father Lionel (Dallas Roberts) to the breaking point, emotionally and financially. The film never suggests the parents drove the kid’s dark descent, but their separation and divorce in his senior year was a big nail in the coffin of an already-damaged psyche.
Screenwriter-director Marc Meyers approaches his subject with an objectivity and restraint, quite effective because we know what this troubled teen does later. Meyers doesn't explain Dahmer’s behavior, just observes its evolution.
The boy’s odd habit of collecting roadkill—which he'd distill down to skeletal remains in a makeshift lab in the woods, is at first condoned by his chemist father, as it seems to reflect an interest in biological processes. When Lionel is finally aware of the truth, he shuts it down. He tries to encourage him to come out of his shell and make friends, but the disharmony with Joyce quashes a real connection with his son.
He tells her, “We need to talk about Jeff,” but the conversation goes nowhere. Meanwhile, Jeffrey starts drinking heavily, maybe to cope with his awareness of his homosexuality and growing obsession with death.
We know what he'll do later.
Meyers uses the same approach with Dahmer’s impulses toward human victims. The film opens with his craving of a bearded jogger who runs by the road on the way to school. Near the end, Dahmer prepares to kill him, but is thwarted. He plans to kill ex-buddy Derf, but is thwarted at the last minute.
We know what's coming.
My Friend Dahmer is quite realistic and straightforward, partly because it's based on fact. Jeffrey’s tortured parents want to know why their son acts so oddly. They get no answer.