Part of Glasgow Film Festival 2018
My Friend Dahmer is a slow-build, with uncomfortable moments and disturbing suggestions littered throughout, warning us that something gruesome awaits. The main problem with the film, though, is that we don’t quite reach that point satisfactorily by the time the credits roll.
This is another of many films and documentaries on the life — or at least the young life — of American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The setup is not unfamiliar for any Hollywood movie about a teenage misfit: Dahmer is awkward, introverted, socially outcast and wanders school corridors alone at the mercy of bullying peers. However, thanks to some bizarre attempts at getting attention, he is welcomed into a gang of academically successful boys who end up viewing him as their geek-cartoon-hero come to life, even creating their own Dahmer Fan Club.
Ross Lynch plays the title role effectively, with vacant eyes, constantly hunched shoulders and, at times, violent outbursts. However, if the film’s aim is to connect the dots between Dahmer’s troubled youth and ultimate fate, it doesn’t provide any fulfilling explanations, if there even can be. A surprising turn from Anne Heche as his mentally unstable mother offers some insight into emotional problems, as does his parents’ separation. But this only feels like a starting point for a true psychoanalysis. Why is Dahmer fixated on pickling roadkill? Why is he obsessed with knowing what people’s insides look like? Why does his supressed sexual orientation erupt in violence? Problems with mom and dad don’t sufficiently resolve this.
That isn’t to say My Friend Dahmer isn’t entertaining. There are genuine moments of tension and the penultimate post-graduation scene is masterfully suspenseful. The film is even funny in places too, especially as we watch Dahmer’s odd interactions with classmates and strangers alike.
Ultimately, though, this feels like a compilation of flashback scenes from a “real” profile of the titular murderer. The entire film relies on the audience’s prior knowledge about who Jeffrey Dahmer was and what he did. If you’re not clued up on that, then much of My Friend Dahmer will leave you feeling you’ve been led to a climax only to be rewarded with a few brief lines of text at the end, summing up some Wikipedia facts about the real-life man. It’s not a fair payoff.