My Friend Dahmer (2017)

*. What is this movie trying to be?
*. I don’t think it’s a biopic. Even though it’s based on a non-fiction graphic novel written by John “Derf” Backderf, the character played by Alex Wolff, from what I’ve been able to gather Dahmer was far more mixed-up, in a bad way, as a high-school kid than this movie lets on.
*. Is it trying to explain Dahmer? Again, I don’t see it. The film gives us some indication of Dahmer’s drinking problems, but apparently he was a total alcoholic at this age, which is something we are left to infer here. Meanwhile, his homosexuality is only lightly glanced at and he’s not really a victim of bullying or a broken home, in so far at least as many kids have suffered much worse. In Backderf’s book Dahmer is explicitly “the victim of torture” and “relentless humiliation.” That’s not at all what we see in this movie. Dahmer is borderline cool, and while his parents aren’t the greatest, he wasn’t abandoned.
*. Maybe this was the point Backderf and writer-director Marc Meyers were trying to make: that Dahmer was essentially unknowable. Though weird he could effectively pass as at least semi-normal. But I don’t think even this works because there does seem like a real attempt being made to make us feel some sympathy for Dahmer. But how can we sympathize with such a total blank?
*. You’ll have guessed from this that I had a lot of trouble getting into My Friend Dahmer. There’s little story to follow, or even sense of rising action. When we see Dahmer at the end about to embark on his criminal career do we have any sense of his being a powder key about to go off? I couldn’t track any progression in his madness. The scene at the end where he says goodbye to Derf is the only time I had a feeling of his being a real threat to anyone, but it quickly passes.

*. Maybe it would have worked better if they’d played off of the idea of this being a horror movie. I thought there were a couple of nods to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with the opening shot of roadkill and the loopy drug-dealer friend cutting his hand with a knife. But I guess that was a direction they didn’t want to go any further in.
*. You may think this is a poor suggestion. Why turn Dahmer’s story into the stuff of cheap genre thrills? I only offer it up as a possibility. The same week I watched this movie, I also watched The Death of Stalin, which took another non-fiction(ish) graphic novel and adapted it as a comedy. That was a bold move, and it worked. Something just as counterintuitive might have helped with My Friend Dahmer, making it both more interesting and more insightful.
*. In addition to its general reticence I think the movie is really hampered by Ross Lynch’s performance. Given this was an indie picture and he was the brooding star playing a difficult role he received a lot of critical praise. This baffles me. Lynch doesn’t strike me as someone who can act much at all. In a lot of scenes, especially those between Dahmer and his parents, there was a real need for him to give some indication of what Dahmer was thinking or feeling, but we get nothing. Yes, one understands that Dahmer was a non-emotive kind of guy. But Lynch gives us even less than that.
*. He also looks like a male model. With that Charlie’s Angels hair, high school girls in the 1970s would have been swooning over him. This makes it hard to buy his Dahmer as a social outcast who just wants to fit in.
*. I can see why people might think all of this compelling. We have a fascination with serial killers and naturally want to know what makes them tick, what matrix of forces conspired to create them. But My Friend Dahmer doesn’t want to go there. I’m not sure where it wants to go.

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