My Friend Dahmer. 2018. Directed & Written by Marc Meyers; based on the graphic novel by John Backderf.
Starring Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Vincent Kartheiser, Anne Heche, Dallas Roberts, Liam Koeth, Tommy Nelson, Harrison Holzer, Cameron McKendry, & Dontez James.
Ibid Filmworks/Aperture Entertainment/Attic Light Films
Rated R. 107 minutes.
I’ve always been interested in the psychology of criminals, particularly serial killers. Specifically, my grim fascination with Jeffrey Dahmer has stretched on for over 20 years. When I was around 14, I was in a Canadian Law course at school, but for one of our papers we were allowed to look at any sort of case from any country. Naturally I picked Dahmer, being a strange, alienated young man. It was intriguing to me, in a sickening sense. Then once I learned more and more, it became a whole other beast.
Let me say it upfront for anybody who could possibly get confused: Dahmer was a horrible human being; monstrous, though all too human. Nevertheless, as a younger man, before all the visceral horror and the psychological terror of his crimes, there was a human story calling out for an empathetic ear.
And this is what My Friend Dahmer captures. Not only that, the story also implicates those who knew Dahmer in failing to at least TRY and stop him from spiralling into a totally antisocial existence. Part of what I find fascinating is that, for me, John ‘Derf’ Backderf implicates himself – intended or not – in an ethical conundrum: is it moral for him to have ignored all the unsettling things about young Dahmer, exploited him like a court jester in high school, and then writing+illustrating a graphic novel to make money off?
Although Ross Lynch’s performance as young Jeffrey is amazing – so intense and relentlessly brooding – one of the most clear aspects of the film involves the portrayals of the Dahmer parents, Lionel (Dallas Roberts) and Joyce (Anne Heche). The relationship of the parents casts this dark cloud of their eldest son’s life, in the sense that he was at an age where he could care for himself to a certain degree, yet he needed more attention. But Lionel and Joyce were busy dealing with their own decaying relationship they couldn’t see that Jeff was drowning in his own alienated little world.
Again, let me make myself clear: nobody’s to blame for Dahmer except for Dahmer himself, but many are guilt of neglecting the clearly growing darkness and worrisome behaviour in him. Emotional neglect of family and friends became a silent form of abuse which ultimately led Jeff further into isolation and eventually towards his terrifying antisocial descent. Despite Lionel and Joyce’s faults, parents are never to blame for psychosis like their son’s, and nobody is; despite the ‘nurture’ aspect of psychology, ‘nature’ plays a major part when it comes to this type of psychopathy. However I’m more inclined to believe that Jeff’s supposed friends in high school did more damage than his parents.
“He’s not a sideshow attraction…”
There’s a scene epitomising the relationship between Dahmer and his friends, specifically Derf (Alex Wolff). The boys are hanging out smoking weed in a basement together. Jeff remains silent in the back of the room as the others chat about the lewd things teenage dudes so often chat about. Then he pipes up with: “I wish I had a best friend.” This startles Derf, who completely forgot he was there; the story of Jeff’s short, young life.
The majority of the world seemed to have chosen it was easier to ignore Jeff than it was to face the
possiblelikely difficulty of his issues. Particularly, it was more than obvious to Derf and his friends that Jeff was evolving into a serious early alcoholic. Dahmer was showing up to class drunk, he was going to the mall drunk, and he wasn’t even graduated from high school at that point. Not one of them said a thing. It wasn’t only alcohol, either. The scene where Jeff and the boys go fishing and he mutilates a fish is telling, too. There was a definite pattern to the progression of his behaviour no one cared enough to fully question, perhaps for fear of what it might’ve ultimately required them to do.
On top of that, Derf and the others exploited Jeff’s willingness to be exceptionally, randomly weird anywhere in public, from the mall to school and anywhere in between. “Do a Dahmer” became an odd form of social currency for his friends amongst the other circles of kids at school, and later, similarly, My Friend Dahmer transformed into relative fame and cash for Backderf. Unfortunately by the time Neil (Tommy Nelson) apologised to Jeff for the exploitation they subjected him to and understood exactly what they were doing to him, it was too late, anyway.
Another aspect about Derf’s relationship specifically with Jeff in high school I find perpetually troubling are his illustrations of Dahmer. They’re all disembodied objects. They represent Jeff removed from agency, just as it was when they were exploiting him to do weird things; as if he were a puppet on the strings of his friends. He was, essentially, seen as a thing to them, not as a person. That didn’t help his antisocial, alienated, and dangerous mind.
For me, the two most unsettling scenes in the film directly connect, and both concern themselves with Jeff’s predilection for young black men. The first one is around the supper table at the Dahmer house, when the budding serial killer wants the “dark meat,” because he likes it the most, and his younger brother gets it instead. Hideous and chilling moment of foreshadowing. Second is when Jeff and Charlie Smith (Dontez James), the only black student in their class, have to room together on a road trip. They hang out in their beds across from one another. That’s when Jeff starts off with asking Charlie a relatively normal question about race, before tumbling into wondering if their black v. white insides look different, y’know, underneath the skin. The creepy racial cannibalistic curiosity is near unbearable.
Finally, it’s Jeff’s obsession with the doctor (Vincent Kartheiser) – the runner often alluded to in stories of his youth, whom he’d watch from afar in the woods, the man he planned on beating with a baseball bat so he could have fun with an unconscious body for the first time – which touches on Jeff’s modus operandi that emerged later when he fully transformed into a killer. He wanted to make zombies.
His huge fascination with the Sleeping Male Beauty was a sort of sad, murderous side effect of his feelings stemming from having to remain in the closet as long as he did, and those zombies were a way of not needing to face the fear of rejection he was sure would follow the reveal of his homosexuality. The scene where this is painfully portrayed involves Jeff’s visit to the doctor about whom he fantasises – the young man gets an erection while he’s getting a physical, and the doctor treats it like a disgusting, repulsive thing instead of something natural; Dahmer feels shamed. It’s one of the most empathetic scenes of the whole film.
Nobody’s to blame for the murders of serial killers other than the serial killers themselves. All the same, we also can’t ignore the various factors from nature to nurture when it comes to what made these aberrations in human nature possible. It’s difficult not to consider all the various conditions which created a near perfect storm in Dahmer’s life for him to wind up a human terror on two legs.
My Friend Dahmer presents not only an examination of Jeffrey himself, it gets into the ethics of Backderf’s friendship with the soon-to-be cannibal murderer, and implicates everyone in the young man’s life, from casual acquaintances to those closest to him, in not having paid enough attention to the serious warning signs that something wasn’t right. Others probably see Backderf differently, and I’m not trying to imply that we’re supposed to pour out our empathy to a man who raped, killed, and ate people; not at all.
But it’s worth considering the roles people played in Jeff’s life, and you can’t help wondering what if at every turn. What if his parents got him psychiatric help? What if his ‘friends’ didn’t exploit his obvious attention-seeking behaviour and what if they’d told somebody that Jeff, a high school kid, was already a full-fledged alcoholic? What if he didn’t feel such deep shame for having homosexual feelings?
We’ll never know the answers. My Friend Dahmer does its best at trying to field those questions, though understanding there’s no way to fully find a definitive end. All we can do is look long and hard at a case like this through every lens possible, in order to, hopefully, walk away with a fresh perspective on criminals whose psychopathy reaches the depravity Dahmer’s went on to reach.