Dahmer. 2002. Directed & Written by David Jacobson.
Starring Jeremy Renner, Bruce Davison, Artel Great, Matt Newton, Dion Basco, Kate Williamson, Sean Blakemore, Christina Payano, Tom’ya Bowden, & Mickey Swenson.
Blockbuster FIlms/DEJ Productions/Peninsula Films.
Rated R. 101 minutes.
I’ve long been interested in the criminal psychology of serial killers. In no way am I ‘fans’ of them, as certain sick puppies out there describe their interest. What’s so compelling is trying to figure out how the human mind could possibly warp so savagely, twisting into the wretched form we find in serial and spree killers, vicious murderers, criminal sociopaths, so on.
Jeffrey Dahmer is someone I studied in high school, as well as university. I wrote a long paper on him for a Law course, which brought me into the hideous world of his crimes. He is one of the most reprehensible of all American killers; that’s saying something, too. A lethal concoction of alienation, an inability to accept his own homosexuality as normal, and a deep, sick desire to find a willingly compliant sexual partner led Dahmer into the darkest path possible.
Director-writer David Jacobson’s Dahmer is far more powerful than most give it credit for, and if this was your first time seeing Jeremy Renner – as it was for me – the quiet intensity of his performance is a massive part of that power. The film takes us headlong into obsession, cannibalism, on a journey through Dahmer’s memories of a dangerously wasted existence.
Starting out we get a brief view of Jeffrey Dahmer (Renner) working at the Milwaukee Ambrosia Chocolate factory, where he was employed in January of ’85. It isn’t simply the job that makes this starting point interesting. A few minutes into the film Jeffrey sits in the break room. He has three chocolate men (Santa maybe) in front of him on the table, as he starts in on chowing down on a sandwich; saving the chocolate fellas for a succulent dessert. An uncomfortably scary moment. A bloody, chocolatey metaphor for his crimes, like we’re about to see a horrific Willy Wonka prequel. Perhaps the best way to start out the events of Dahmer’s life.
What’s scariest to me about the screenplay is how well it makes Jeffrey appear outwardly normal – quirky, odd, though normal. And the disarming looks of Renner, his charm, they him all the more worrying; his seemingly normal qualities to the outside world are what many peopled noted about him later in real life. Before the first 15 minutes are out, the viewer’s been immersed in the criminal life Dahmer crumbles into, already too familiar with his nasty routines. The first turning point is when Jeffrey eyes a department store mannequin, long before those who don’t know his real story discover his affinity for mannequins – and why – further leading into his ultimate fantasy of an unmoving, quiet sex partner, or a sex zombie, as Dahmer himself believed.
I love that Bruce Davison plays Lionel, Jeffrey’s father. He and Renner have wonderful chemistry. Their scenes together ratchet up the suspense because there’s this wait, a hope that maybe Lionel will discover these atrocities. Yet, as we know by the real story, this will never come. For instance, the box scene where father and son, alongside grandma, argue over a little box the former kept as a boy – clearly, Jeffrey has something inside he doesn’t want his father, or anybody, to see. There’s so much tension here, a lot of emotional acting from both men. A real heavy dose of personal drama, likely akin to what Lionel truly experienced with his son. It’s the revelation of what’s actually in the box afterwards which truly shocks, disgusts, and the tip of that Dahmer iceberg suddenly grows into a mountain.
However, the gay bar scenes are the most unsettling. This is one of the really psychological scenes, as Jeffrey seemingly steps outside of himself. He sees the image of himself, a bit younger and nerdier, standing alone across the street. He then heads inside the gay bar. While this is an exploration of Jeffrey’s sexuality, worse than this it is his discovery of the perfect hunting grounds. Jacobson directs this to perfection, as the alienation of Dahmer becomes painfully clear. The social awkwardness of Jeffrey is evident, and then his menace reveals itself after he starts initiating non-consensual encounters with gay men he drugs. Moreover, Jeffrey longed for a willing sexual partner, one that goes beyond consent: he wanted a lifeless man, to use, to not be judged by, and to degrade at his own will. The sexual violence here is sickening, although there’s a slight bit of restraint. During this sequence, Andrea True Connection’s “More More More” playing over top, the editing and the lighting, everything is so eerie. We watch as Jeffrey finally transforms from that awkward, shy, closeted gay man into an unfeeling, drunk, hideous monster right before our eyes. Later, the monstrous qualities of Dahmer come through even better – the lighting in his apartment, his bedroom and bathroom specifically, are tinted red, like a men’s room in Hell’s basement. And while the movie wears on, the lighting gets darker, as we get a further grip on this man’s evil.
What I love most is the screenplay. Jacobson gives us a full look at Dahmer’s life in the way that we follow the killer through his mind. Flashing from past to present, back, forth, is not only a narrative choice. Jacobson gets the viewer into the headspace of Dahmer. The past events of his life obviously affected his psyche deeply, and so we slip in and out of memories – mostly bad to rotten – in order to make the film feel like an experience of Jeffrey’s life through his thought process. Notice the significance of the events which bring him back to specific stories. Through this, we see the uncomfortable pain that at least partly dragged Jeffrey into a life of depraved murder.
Dahmer is a hugely underrated bit of horror. The entire film as a whole is upsetting because you’re forced to both watch Dahmer commit horrible crimes and simultaneously peer through the window of a despicable man’s undoubted, deep sadness. You’re never asked to like him, but the narrative makes us have to watch his story from a certain standpoint. A great move from director-writer Jacobson.
There’s a lot to enjoy about such a macabre horror, from cinematography to the music (which really helps the atmosphere; the score and soundtrack alike work well in combination). It’s the imagery I find most striking. So I leave you with this: watching his first murder, Jeffrey becomes a tragic sort of figure (even if he was an inexcusable cyst on the human race), and skipping to the present timeline of the film after witnessing that event we then see him cut a dead man open, reach inside, all to literally try touching someone’s heart. Maybe not a pretty image. A deafening image in its own right.