Jeffrey Dahmer drugged, raped and killed 17 men between 1978 and 1991, often indulging in necrophilia and cannibalism along the way. After hearing of his very public conviction, ex-schoolmate John ‘Derf’ Backderf was suitably shocked, later writing and illustrating a graphic novel about the time they’d spent together in the ’70s: a nuanced portrait of a monster in waiting.
Set in smalltown Ohio during the months leading up to Dahmer’s first kill, writer-director Marc Meyers’ adaptation is a quiet study of dysfunction. It is resolutely ungrisly — 2002’s so-so Jeremy Renner biopic Dahmer explored all the cruising and killing, and this is a more analytical origin story. After kicking off with some exposition — within two minutes Dahmer has ogled both a bit of roadkill and a young jogger, and his dad soon tells him he needs to be doing more ‘normal’ things than playing around with dead animals in the shed — it becomes a portrait of a young man fond of animal dismemberment, yes, but also burdened by repressed emotions and barely there social skills. His home-life doesn’t help: he and his family live in a cabin in the woods, his loveless parents constantly bickering, and he soon begins acting up to get attention, notably faking seizures for laughs. It’s a worry.
Ross Lynch is an unnerving Dahmer, sexually frustrated and awkwardly leering, with disconcertingly dead eyes. Alex Wolff, as Derf — less a friend than an exploitative cheerleader — is effectively understated, and Anne Heche is entertainingly off-kilter as Dahmer’s unstable mother, Joyce. Backderf (who, laudably, doesn’t cast himself in a flattering light) has said his story is about how Dahmer was failed by society, pretty confident that the guy was allowed to slip through the cracks via ignorance and negligence. It’s hard to gauge how much of what goes on here contributed to what later happened, as Dahmer was diagnosed with multiple disorders. But he was certainly starved of the right kind of attention, and this film suggests that his compensation for that had destructive results.
This is Dahmer Begins: a look at the young man Backderf knew before he became a killer, and in that sense it’s an eerie study. To a point; any trace of horror here comes from hindsight. The film itself is quite slight, the pace leisurely, and Dahmer’s behavioural traits, while psychologically and historically authentic, are repetitive. It is moderately disquieting, but there’s something clinical about My Friend Dahmer’s approach — a detachment that leaves you a little cold. It never gets too close, admirably avoiding sensationalism, but possibly too respectful for its own good, only truly becoming compelling towards the end as Dahmer becomes an obvious threat, the more recognisable figure we know. Still, Meyers creates a troubling tone throughout, a subdued creepiness which lingers to unsettling effect.