April 4, 2018 My Friend Dahmer (Movie Review)
In 2002, Jon ‘Derf’ Backderf (The City comic strip, Punk Rock and Trailer Parks 2010) self-published a 24-page comic book. He had wanted it to be 100 pages, and done by an official publisher, but each one he pitched the project to turned him down. One could say they lost out, as the scaled-back version earned Derf an Eisner Award nomination and a one-act stage play adaptation. Ten years later, he released an expanded 224-page edition that earned him the Angoulême Award, as well as more award nominations (Rueben, Ignatz and Harvey Awards amongst others) and a film adaptation in the form of My Friend Dahmer.
A few years in the making, My Friend Dahmer took a while to reach the screen. Its script was on the 2014 Black List of unproduced screenplays before being found by Ibid Filmworks, Aperture Entertainment and Attic Light Films. They managed to get the project up in the air, with original Screenwriter Marc Meyers (Harvest 2011, How He Fell in Love 2016) in the director’s seat. Moving forward, it debuted at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, where FilmRise soon acquired the distribution rights for North America. It then arrived in selected theaters on November 7th, 2017 and did modestly well, and finally, it will be making its way to DVD and Blu-Ray on Tuesday, April 10, 2018.
A compelling title within itself, My Friend Dahmer is about an awkward teenager (Ross Lynch: Muppets Most Wanted 2014, Snowtime! 2016) trying to get through a difficult home life and high school during the 1970’s. His mom (Anne Heche: Donnie Brasco 1997, Psycho 1998) is crazy, and his dad (Dallas Roberts: 3:10 to Yuma 2007, The Grey 2011) has little going for him. Still, he manages to make some friends, like Jon Backderf (Alex Wolff: My Big, Fat Greek Wedding 2 2016, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle 2017) through his oddball antics. Unfortunately, some of those antics hide some dark desires that only get worse as he nears graduation.
His name is Jeffrey Dahmer, and he would turn those desires into 17 fatalities and 16 life sentences before being killed in prison in 1994. So yeah, one could see why those publishers may have been antsy over accepting Derf’s original pitch. Not every dark topic is a winner, but the comic books were. The film got a warm reception too. Rolling Stone magazine called it “a warped wonder of a movie,” and Time Out said it was “equal parts The Virgin Suicides and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Although, is that the case? Is it any more insightful on the notorious figure? Or, more simply, is it all that it is cracked up to be?
It is not a Sin City style adaptation, where it frames the shots exactly like the comic panels. It takes few liberties either; what is shown in the film is largely from the book. It certainly helped guide the film’s look and design, where it manages to look like the Seventies without going overboard. There are Seventies’ clothes and Seventies’ hairstyles, but it does not look like Disco Stu is ready to leap in and spoil the grim mood. It feels like a more authentic time and place as a result. There is a National Lampoon T-shirt in there somewhere, but Lynch’s Dahmer is not exactly John Belushi.
He is not the maniac from 2010’s Dahmer Vs Gacy either. If anything, he feels more like any other nerd from high school one may know. He barely speaks above a mumble, he moves awkwardly, like he prefers to stay in his own world. If it was about anyone else, it would be a sympathetic portrayal of a recluse trying to break out of his shell. That is only one side, and the only one Derf and his classmates really see up close. The audience already knows what becomes of Dahmer, and they are shown all sides; his roadkill ‘experiments,’ his home life, his fascination with a local jogger (Vincent Kartheiser: Mad Men series, Most Likely to Murder 2018), amongst other fantasies.
The cast manages to portray this mix of horror and humanity well. It is almost textbook for teenybopper stars to go from one extreme to the other when changing directions. Kurt Russell managed to make it work for himself (going from 1969’s The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes to 1982’s Escape from New York), but it does not work all the time. It is a bit early to tell whether it will work for Lynch, but he works out well as Dahmer. It is a soft-spoken role, but Lynch manages to speak volumes through his uneasy movements before the red flags rise. Heche and Roberts do a striking job as his parents too, where they provide an interesting contrast.
Wolff’s Derf and his ‘Dahmer Club’ do a solid job too. Their friendship with Dahmer comes off as genuine, albeit with impure intentions. The only problem here is that the audience does not get to know Derf as well as Dahmer. He is the leader of the club, and eggs Dahmer on for some of his antics. Yet, he does not stand out that much from the rest of the club. At least not until near the end, where things pick up for him. He reaches a peak but does not start climbing it for a while. Otherwise, it is all about his friend Dahmer than himself.
Overall, My Friend Dahmer is a very strong film that manages to show a relatable side to a scary figure. It does not excuse what he did, so much as suggest context for why he ended up that way. He did not begin as a monster, but he became one because he could not cope with his issues, let alone his own desires. It is a heavy drama about a long fall that is worth checking out. That is why CrypticRock gives My Friend Dahmer 4 out of 5 stars.