There is something morbidly fascinating about getting inside the mind of a serial killer, about plunging into a twisted psyche of macabre impulses. Trying to understand something completely beyond the moral scope of most people is an impossible task, but “My Friend Dahmer” attempts to do just that. The film works as both an origin story and an eerie portrait of Jeffrey Dahmer, chronicling his last year in high school as it attempts to understand how his early life contributed to his infamy as a serial killer and cannibal.
“My Friend Dahmer” doesn’t necessarily probe the mind of Jeffrey Dahmer as much as follow him around. His most intimate desires are alien to us, but are hinted at in a slow and eerie progression of moments. Dahmer is largely a tragically lonely figure who is ostracized at school and neglected at home. We see him spending hours on end in his lab, dissolving roadkill in acid and indulging his fascination with bones. We also see him trying to get the attention he craves by “spazzing,” or imitating bouts of epilepsy in disturbingly prolonged scenes. Dahmer’s place as an outcast humanizes him, and while his foray into the grotesque is unsettling, he appears as a misunderstood character deserving of sympathy.
The film is an adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name by John ‘Derf’ Backderf, the real-life character that befriends Dahmer. Played well by Alex Wolff (“Patriot’s Day”), Derf is intrigued by Dahmer’s spazzing and welcomes him within the ranks of his prankster friends group, heralding him as the class clown. With Derf, Dahmer finds the companionship he desperately needs. But the film is careful to sprinkle in red flags that shatter Derf’s innocent view of Dahmer and hint at something more sinister and dangerous. The film does an incredible job at navigating moments of implicit tension, coloring a sixth sense where you know something isn’t quite right and creating fear from that tension. “My Friend Dahmer” explores the dynamics between people and the gravity behind the social scene of high school.
The undeniable backbone of the film is Ross Lynch’s (“Teen Beach Movie”) portrayal of Dahmer. The former Disney Channel star is wholly unrecognizable as the shuffling, hunch-backed and hooded-eyed outcast who moves like a clunky shadow. Lynch communicates Dahmer’s bottled homosexuality with grace, showing his lustful fantasies of the neighbor with just the right dash of eeriness that hints at his later masochistic sexual desires. There’s a sense of entropy to Dahmer’s existence; his impulses and fantasies escalate uncontrollably, and he cannot find his way back to the simple reality of the other boys. There’s a sense of relatability there, in fighting to quell desires that ultimately win, but there is an overarching mystery that the film doesn’t try to explain.
The movie doesn’t make excuses for Dahmer, who would go on to infamously murder and eat seventeen people. Many scenes feature him excessively drinking, butchering animals and rubbing their bones. “My Friend Dahmer” isn’t trying to argue that he could have been saved had his friends and parents paid more attention. The movie merely wants to get inside the mind of a serial killer and humanize him, exploring the factors that contributed to the actions of one of the world’s most infamous killers.