Portrait of a killer at school

  

My Friend Dahmer (M). Director: Marc Meyers. Starring: Ross Lynch, Dallas Roberts, Anne Heche, Alex Wolff, Vincent Kartheiser, Tommy Nelson. 103 minutes

Ross Lynch as a young Jeffrey DahmerIn his 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine, about the 1999 massacre in that Colorado high school, Michael Moore asks iconoclastic musician Marilyn Manson what he would say to the killers if they were standing there right now.

Manson — who, ironically, took his stage name from one of America's most infamous mass murderers, Charles Manson — offers one of the film's most confronting insights: 'I wouldn't say a single word to them,' he replies. 'I would listen to what they have to say, and that's what no one did.'

The quote is both reductionist and profound in its simplicity. It has an uneasy resonance with the latest American film about the life of a killer.

Between 1978 and 1991 Wisconsin man Jeffrey Dahmer committed the rape, murder and dismemberment of 17 young men. The psychology of serial killers such as Dahmer is incredibly complex, and a film about his youth would be remiss in trying to allocate blame or establish direct causal links.

To its credit My Friend Dahmer, based on the graphic novel and memoir by artist John Backderf about his teenage friendship with the soon-to-be killer, proves to be a complex character study of which Dahmer's troubled home life, repressed homosexuality, abuse of drugs and alcohol, and experiences of bullying and social alienation are motley features rather than defining characteristics.

It is a both empathetic and troubling film, made more so by adopting the well-worn shape of the American 'teen movie'.

 

"What there is instead is a portrait of an extremely disturbed young man who neither feels empathy nor experiences it from others."

 

It takes place in 1978 over the course of Jeff's (Lynch) final year of school, and charts his experiences of trying to fit in with his peers, of unrequited sexual infatuation (in Jeff's case, with a local doctor, played by Kartheiser), of bouncing back and forth between feuding parents and parsing their frequently self-interested advice and disciplinary approaches.

It culminates with the obligatory prom night and the parting of peers after graduation as they embark on the next phase of adulthood. These familiar tropes are corrupted by the knowledge of what Jeff is about to become.

When we first meet Jeff he's already got some disturbing habits, notably dissolving dead animals in jars of acid supplied to him by his chemist father Lionel (Roberts). Ominously, he tells some horrified local boys that this is because he is fascinated with the insides of living things.

Just as portentous is a moment where Jeff is seen curling dumbbells, a hobby encouraged by Lionel (recalling his own friendless youth) as having more social cache than collecting road kill. In 1994, while serving a life sentence, Dahmer would be beaten to death by a fellow inmate with a piece of gym equipment.

At school Jeff is indeed a misfit, given a wordless, hanging-armed awkwardness by Lynch that suggests he is painfully conscious of his status as an outsider. Early in the school year he is taken in by a group of boys, led by Backderf (Wolff), who dub themselves the Dahmer Fan Club and earn a degree of amusement and social credibility by encouraging the boy to act foolishly in public.

Jeff's desperate attempts to gain attention at any cost are excruciating to watch, but only one of the boys, Neil (Nelson), ever dares to name the cruelty of this treatment and express sorrow for it. Backderf on the other hand gradually begins to suspect Jeff is something more dangerous than a class clown.

There is no suggestion that the bullying caused Jeff's later behaviour, any more than his mother Joyce's (a brilliantly brash and nervy Heche) own experiences of mental illness, or Lionel's plunging self-esteem, can explain or excuse his burgeoning proclivity to murder and mutilate.

What there is instead is a portrait of an extremely disturbed young man who neither feels empathy nor experiences it from others. With hindsight we can wonder what might have happened if someone had noticed where Jeff was heading — if someone had listened — and intervened.

But as My Friend Dahmer would have it, no one really noticed Jeff at all. Alienated from meaningful relationships, he was free to become a monster.

  

  

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Ross Lynch, Jeffrey Dahmer, Marc Meyers

 

 

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