My Friend Dahmer (2018) (Review)

The serial killer genre is extremely difficult ground to tread: in painting an intimate portrait of the world's most loathsome figures, you run the risk of humanising them and evoking sympathy -- some may even say it glamourises and desensitises, which is incredible icky ground. Still, Marc Meyers' fourth feature, My Friend Dahmer, weathers that storm and does a rather good job at avoiding the pitfalls associated with its ilk.

As the tagline suggests, My Friend Dahmer concerns itself with 'the story before that story', a detailed look at a troubled teen, Jeffery Dahmer (played by Ross Lynch), who would go on to become one of the most infamous serial killers of the 20th century. Taking place over four years in high school, it explores Dahmer's family situation, image as the 'class clown' in high school and the escalation of his deranged, sadistic behaviour, culminating in his first kill in 1978. It co-stars Anne Heche, Alex Wolff, Dallas Roberts and Vincent Kartheiser and is based on the graphic novel by cartoonist, John Backderf, who associated himself with Dahmer shortly before his killing spree.

My Friend Dahmer confidently and astutely avoids the stumbling blocks of the serial killer genre (glamourisation, desensitisation, exploitation) while reminding us of the scariest thing of all -- Dahmer's humanness. His desperate cries for attention echo throughout the film and the escalation of his behaviour is illustrated on-screen to nerve-shattering effects. In thanks to the balanced, considered screenplay from Meyers (complete with a refreshing twist on the genre), My Friend Dahmer delivers slow-burning fear that captures his descent to pure evil, made all the more unfathomable by how much we may recognise elements of Dahmer's often 'normal' behaviour.

For the majority of its 107-minute runtime, My Friend Dahmer is tinged with warm yellow hues, reminiscent of the era it captures so well; its colour palette could be directly lifted from a 70s coming-of-age tale, making the stark and sudden fragments of Dahmer's more violent and psychotic thoughts (where colour is drained from the screen almost in its entirety) all the more jarring. Meyers is an incredibly competent director, provocative and compassionate in his approach to a fascinatingly morbid subject and the insight of novelist Backderf is undeniably beneficial to the story, balancing a surprising amount of humour with the achingly sad.

 It goes without saying that there's never an attempt to justify the unjustifiable - but Meyers does an excellent job of combining an unsettling level of sympathy and a chilling eeriness that makes this an incredibly strange yet compulsive viewing experience. It contains some brilliantly terrifying moments bursting with suspense, bound to evoke a ripple of gasps across any screening. The remarkable way it prods the 'nature versus nurture' debate without prescribing an answer, allowing the audience to make their own judgement as to whether the class clown was always destined to be a monster or whether the influence of others pushed him over the edge, is a testament to Meyers' eye for balance. He has crafted a well-rendered and restrained piece tonally, an exploration of exploitation that all but completely avoids exploiting itself.

Ross Lynch's magnetic lead performance is a revelation. Fantastically calibrated, his detachment and gradual implosion is incredibly well-realised and delivered to skin-crawling effect. He captures Dahmer's nuances expertly, his almost drunken, despondent aura that manages to convey so much through so little. It's controlled and layered and Lynch understands where and when it is appropriate to generate sympathy, pushing it to an uncomfortable and unsettling place before retreating. In the wrong hands, it could feel incredibly misguided and tactless - but Lynch and Meyers find a strong footing. An array of strong supporting performances, particularly from Alex Wolff, bolster the piece further too.

Oozing with dread, My Friend Dahmer is an appropriately unsettling, tense and frequently horrifying character piece that delves into circumstance, neglect, complicity and exploitation to illustrate the creation of a monster. It's a serial killer origin story in the aptest, most sophisticated form. Perceptive and layered to an almost scary degree, My Friend Dahmer is a strangely moving portrait tinged with a compassion that makes the inevitability of the story all the more crushing.

Marc Meyers and Ross Lynch remind us of the scariest thing of all (Dahmer's humanness) and while the film neglects to show us any human killings, I honestly think that it's for the better; the gradually-intensifying, nerve-shredding suspense is far more powerful in its restraint than the overtly graphic ever could, and I admire Meyers (and his film) for that control.


Summary: My Friend Dahmer is a restrained, controlled and layered portrait documenting the creation of a monster, helmed fantastically by Marc Meyers and with a transformative, excellently-judged performance from Ross Lynch.