Monday 20 August 2018

My Friend Dahmer movie review: 'A startling insight into the formative years of a monster'

4 stars

Nuanced: Ross Lynch is well cast as Dahmer in thoughtful take on the serial killer genre
Nuanced: Ross Lynch is well cast as Dahmer in thoughtful take on the serial killer genre

Paul Whitington

On July 22, 1991, a police car on patrol in Milwaukee was flagged down by a desperate man. He had a handcuff attached to one wrist, and told the officers that "a freak" had just tried to subdue him.

When Tracy Edwards led the cops to an apartment at 924 North 25th Street, they found a blandly smiling man who welcomed them in and watched impassively as they searched.

What the poor policemen found was sickening: bleached skeletons, human body parts, a severed head sitting on a shelf in the fridge. They had chanced upon the lair of Jeffrey Dahmer, one of America's most notorious and prolific serial killers, who'd murdered and partially eaten at least 17 men.

What makes a creature like that, you might ask. God only knows, but in Marc Meyers' absorbing and oddly beautiful film My Friend Dahmer, we're given some clues.

It's the mid-1970s, and young Jeffrey is living in Bath, Ohio, with his parents, and attending the Revere High School. His mother Joyce (played here by Anne Heche) is mentally unstable and addicted to alcohol and pills: his father Lionel (Dallas Roberts) os a hard-working chemist who struggles to cope with her mood swings, and the pair will eventually separate.

While they bicker, Jeffrey lurks in a shed at the end of the garden dissecting roadkill and watching the flattened animals slowly dissolve in acid.

Ross Lynch stars as Jeffrey Dahmer in 'My Friend Dahmer', a film based on the graphic novel by Derf Backderf
Ross Lynch stars as Jeffrey Dahmer in 'My Friend Dahmer', a film based on the graphic novel by Derf Backderf

An interest in lifeless beasts that began in his early childhood has spiralled out of control, and when his father finally sees the warning signs, he destroys the shed and the horror show in it.

But it's way too late, and Jeffrey's focus is beginning to shift from dead animals to live people. He fantasises about attacking and killing a man who jogs past his house every morning, and things are not much sunnier at school.

Bright but apathetic, Jeffrey is socially awkward and has few friends, a predicament that infuriates him. In addition, he's realised that he's gay, and has no idea what to do with his adolescent impulses. One day, in a desperate attempt to attract attention, he feigns a spasm and yawps and shakes, falling to the floor.

This impresses John Backderf (Alex Woolf), a cocky young artist, who encourages his entourage of smart alecs to take Jeffrey under their wing. They form a Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club, and persuade Jeffrey to stage more spasms in public places.

His parents are delighted when Backderf and the other boys begin turning up at the house, but they're laughing at Jeffrey behind his back, and sooner or later he is going to realise he's being played.

Meyers' film is based on a graphic novel by Backderf which mulls over Jeffrey's high school years in an attempt to pinpoint the source of the monstrousness that would follow.

I generally have absolutely no interest in the inner workings of a psychopath's mind: the popular fascination with the exploits of serial killers is unseemly, and dwelling on the twisted motivations of mass murderers depresses me. But My Friend Dahmer offers a more thoughtful and nuanced approach to this darkest of subjects, and dares to treat Jeffrey as a human being.

The restraint with which Meyers handles his story deepens it, adding melancholy layers to Jeffrey's morbid dysfunction. There are clues to what he will become, but little or no violence, and Meyers never makes the mistake of clumsily blaming any misfortune for Jeffrey's monstrosity.

By the time we meet him the die is cast, and perhaps Jeffrey was born a killer. In his mid-teens, his morbidity is overwhelming him, and even kind acts make him sourer: the weights his worried father buys him to encourage an interest in sport will later be used to bludgeon his first victim to death.

Roberts is superb as Lionel, a tired man who seems to sense his eldest son is unsavable. And Ross Lynch is well cast as the slowly drowning Jeffrey, whose absurd David Soul haircut makes him seem almost harmless.

My Friend Dahmer  (15A, 107mins) - 4 stars

Also releasing this week: Movie reviews: Book Club, Ismael's Ghosts, That Summer

Films coming soon...

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeff Goldblum, Toby Jones, Rafe Spall); McQueen (Alexander McQueen, Yvonne Humble, Isabella Blow); All the Wild Horses (Ivo Marloh, Donie Fahy, George Azarias).

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