When the title comes up at the end of My Friend Dahmer saying that the man would go on to murder 17 people over the course of the next 20 years it feels like a punchline. The film ain’t been particularly cagey about the young leads predilections. We see him in his the shed where as a child he would dissolve roadkill in acid to study their decomposition and preserve their bones, we see his neglectful and abusive parents dumping on him at home, the way he drinks to cope with the troubles in his life, the way his repressed and mismanaged anger chooses to express itself.
What it doesn’t do, at any single point during the running time is take a moment to reckon with any of it. It doesn’t manage at all to create any sort of understanding or empathy for the character. This is obvious from literally the first scene. Dahmer is riding a school bus and sees a man running down the side of the street. Writer and Director Marc Meyers has no idea how to shoot queer sexuality, no grounding with which to read the efforts of repressed desire.
He sets scenes with Dahmer crouching in the bushes watching the dude. When he passes the boy averts his eyes, gets all angry at himself. Later he masturbates to the memory and the film plays it as a moment of comedy, his pleasure being interrupted by the shrewish mother shouting from the next room. It is a collection of clichés so unexamined that they are not only not subverted, but they are presented devoid of meaning or intent.
Same with the homophobic bullying that gets thrown at us early on, subsequently dropped without much interrogation or resolution. There’s more to homophobia than being pushed around in the hallways while being called a faggot. Yet the film drops in three identical scenes of this, oh these bad bullies throwing your books on the ground, look at the shit these queers had to deal with. It’s so damn laughable, and the film invites us to properly see this troubled murderous man through a collection of stereotypes that it don’t even realise that it participating in.
Take how Ross Lynch performs Dahmer himself. He trudges around, shoulders square, arms hanging limp with that bouncing gait that vibrates up from the floor, bouncing the whole body. Staring out from these heavy lidded eyes, speaking all terse and sullen. I haven’t looked into Dahmer at all, it may be a wonderful impersonation but the performance is as lifeless as the animals decomposing in those jars of acid. Everything about his manner is designed to point us to the inevitable conclusion. Serial killer.
There’s a scene in here when on a class trip to Washington DC Dahmer blags he and his friends into the offices of the Vice President, and from there pushes his way to the man himself. It feels so implausible because we are never invited to see the side of the man who would be capable of such a feat. When he gains some friends by joking about, pretending to be disabled (which I’m sure was an acceptable impression to pull at the time) it’s shot to be tragic.
The lad ain’t even afforded an opportunity to be funny, he is never allowed the opportunity to enjoy himself. In the final moments of the flick we see him finally picking up his first victim. His face breaks out into a loose and easy smile that we have not seen at all until this point. Is it believable that the man’s face should be so constantly drawn? I suppose it is just more comfortable for us to believe that he was a monstrous tragedy.
It is held in so much greater relief when we consider the ‘My’ of the title, Alex Wolff is having a fire year. Coming off of Jumanji through this and into Hereditary in a few weeks’ time. Now I don’t much like those first two as movies but he is absolutely great in them. Here he just nails the awkward presence of a shitty friend to a troubled kid, goading him, teasing him, gaslighting him. Yet Wolff is provided with the freedom that Lynch don’t get, his character is mostly an ass yet is allowed to possess the charisma and intent that he got to in order to get away with it. It’s a wonderfully balanced performance.
And he’s accompanied by Tommy Nelson, who I last saw in Moonrise Kingdom, as the other side of the coin, the conflicted empathetic friend who is sure that something rum is going on. The person with the compassion to not distance himself from a person withdrawing into themselves, but without the necessary tools to help. He’s great too. Their quality is at the film’s detriment.
Cos I just end up waiting to watch more of Jeffrey Dahmer’s friends. They’re the ones who are being interestingly, sensitively performed. It is through their actions we can start to see the edges of societal complicity in the creation of a monster, they’re the ones who’re actually compelling to watch. So when the film focusses on them it feels straight, a baggy and awkward 1970 high-school hijinks flick.
Honestly, it looks and feels like an overextended SNL sketch about how teen comedies of the era were super fucking problematic. Like, look at how back in the day it would be socially acceptable to laugh at offensive impressions of the disabled. And then the sketch ends saying like how the lead was actually Jeffery Dahmer to double down on the point about how this shit is gross and outdated and offensive.
It wouldn’t be a very funny sketch, nor an entertaining one. But neither is this film, and at least on SNL it would feel like it were done on purpose.
My Friend Dahmer is currently screening in UK cinemas.
Image courtesy of Altitude