Making a biopic based on the life of a notorious serial killer is a unique tightrope act for any filmmaker; creating a film that is sympathetic to the victims’ loved ones’ trauma whilst remaining factually accurate and entertaining whilst not glorifying its subject’s heinous crimes requires care and precision. It becomes even more difficult when, as in My Friend Dahmer, the serial killer in question had a troubled upbringing of their own. Jeffrey Dahmer is a monster guilty of the murder of seventeen men between 1978 – 1991 but, as Dahmer’s classmate John Backderf documented in the 2012 graphic novel from which this film was adapted, he was also a mentally ill, misunderstood and socially awkward boy from a broken home. My Friend Dahmer is a darkly funny film that attempts to objectively present Jeffrey Dahmer’s difficult high school years and relationship with Backderf without trying to justify his later crimes.
The story begins with Dahmer’s infamous obsession with dissolving animals in acid, a strange hobby enabled by his chemist father. Meanwhile, at school, Jeffrey’s unpredictable behaviour attracts the attention of amateur cartoonist and illustrator John Backderf, who starts the ‘Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club’ with his friends, encouraging Dahmer to act out in public for their own entertainment. Eventually, to Jeffrey’s concerned family’s relief, this evolves into a somewhat real friendship and the Fan Club continue to prank their classmates the way normal teenagers in films do. While the events that unfold onscreen are light-hearted enough, a cloud of dark context hangs above My Friend Dahmer.
The knowledge that Dahmer would go onto become one of the most vicious and sadistic serial killers in recent history colours the film; every laugh feels slightly wrong and every joke, however infantile, feels dark. My Friend Dahmer is by no means a comfortable watch, but the decision by first time director Marc Meyers to make the film a comedy in the vein of Dazed and Confused and let the audience bring their own preconceptions along with them was genius.
Meyers makes the interesting decision to cast former child actors as both Dahmer and Backderf, Ross Lynch and Alex Wolff respectively. This was a deliberate decision, designed to make an audience who recognises the actors from their previous, more wholesome work even more uncomfortable. It is successful, too. Seeing Wolff, who previously starred on the Nickelodeon show The Naked Brothers Band in close proximity with a future serial killer adds an extra layer of disorientation to an already dizzying film.
The more one knows about Dahmer’s later crimes, the more uncomfortable My Friend Dahmer becomes. Interactions with Dr Matthews (Vincent Kartheiser) hint towards Dahmer’s homosexuality, but knowing that rape would eventually become a part of the killer’s ritualistic predatory behaviour casts them in a much more sinister light. Dahmer’s well-known fascination with roadkill escalates throughout the film, with him eventually stalking the doctor while he jogs up the road by Dahmer’s house. As the film goes on, the Jeffrey Dahmer on screen becomes ever closer to the Jeffrey Dahmer in audiences’ mind, making each scene becoming progressively tenser.
The final scene between Dahmer and Backderf is a masterclass in building tension, with the low light and eerily vacant set design evoking an outright horror film.
With My Friend Dahmer, Marc Meyers has successfully navigated the serial killer biopic, creating a graphic novel adaptation like no other. Inspired casting and a bizarre, darkly comic tone leads to one of the most unique films of the year, never feeling like an ode to its depraved protagonist. Likable, unaware and ultimately tragic supporting characters act as the perfect foil to Ross Lynch’s uncomfortably awkward portrayal of Jeffrey Dahmer, a character who shows all the early signs of being a danger to society but is neglected by everyone around him to such an extent that he is allowed to become a monster. My Friend Dahmer will surely divide audiences, but that was probably the point all along.
My Friend Dahmer is set for release on the 1st June, 2018.
Words by Ethan Megenis-Clarke @_ethanmc.
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