I might have expected a movie called “Dahmer” to be exploitative, trashy, and made for TV. For all I know, there may have been such a production, but Dahmer is different. It’s an art-house movie that treats its subject with seriousness, curiosity, and sensitivity, although that doesn’t necessarily mean it lets Jeffrey Dahmer off easy.
Two Times, Two Times
R for sex, violence, drugs, language
The movie tells the story of the notorious serial killer in two timelines. The first one we see is the older Dahmer. He works in a chocolate factory and picks up gay men after his shift. The other timeline shows a younger Jeffrey trying to convince his father that he’s a normal teenager with typical teenage troubles, even though he has already slipped into murder and madness. Both timelines explore the roots of Dahmer’s crimes, the social awkwardness and isolation that apparently contributed to his monstrously amoral and sociopathic tendencies.
The later timeline takes place during a long night when Jeffrey picks up Rodney (Artel Kayàru) at a local knife shop. Following his usual pattern, Dahmer invites Rodney back to his place, where he intends to drug him, rape him, mutilate him, and kill him. But for now, their fresh acquaintance allows us to get to know the older Dahmer.
The older Dahmer knows he is a monster, yet he is relatively comfortable with his identity. He tells Rodney coldly, “I am a pervert. I am an exhibitionist. I am a masturbator. And a killer.” Rodney tells him he’s just being weird, and Jeffrey replies “what’s weird is when you go to church and eat the body and blood of Christ.”
The earlier timeline has more to do with the adolescent homosexual’s shame, and the social awkwardness and isolation that accompanies it. Dahmer’s undeniable yet unacceptable sexual identity teaches him how to hide his true self from authority figures, be they his parents, his grandparents, or the local traffic cop. He later finds that the Closet is a good place to hide all of his unacceptable urges.
The key to this movie is the portrayal of Jeffrey Dahmer, which is outstanding. Up-and-comer Jeremy Renner looks a little like Tobey Maguire. He has that same shy, everyday, boy-next-door quality that Maguire showcased in Pleasantville and charmed America with in Spider-Man. He adds some of the repressed energy Malcolm McDowall occasionally held in check in A Clockwork Orange. Renner brings to life both the older, more self-assured Dahmer who has refined his torture and killing to ritual; and the younger, terrified, self-loathing teenager who can’t make sense of his hormones and emotions.
Elsewhere, the acting is not quite up to snuff. Jeffrey’s father Lionel (Bruce Davison) falls short of believability. Davison feels like he’s playing an archetypal Father, rather than someone specific. Much has been made of the relationship between the real Jeffrey Dahmer and his father, and I confess I am unfamiliar with the specifics, but Dahmer fails to enlighten me as to the heart of it.
Rodney is too big a role for Artel Kayàru. I could never quite understand his motives. The composited character is well written, but the performance fails to convince me of what is in the script. The script allows Rodney to become involved with Dahmer either because he’s bored with his job or because he’s attracted to Jeffrey in some way. But the performance doesn’t convince me of either, nor did it offer an alternative. It’s as though Kayàru held back just a little.
One last character does manage to connect. Lance (Matt Newton) is a classmate of Dahmer’s, a wrestler whom Jeffrey picks up while his parents are out of town. Perhaps more than anyone else, Newton and is able to match wits with Renner’s Dahmer.
Telling the Story
The writing and direction are both above average. Jacobson cuts between times and places, and although the jumps take some getting used to, the texture is a plus for this otherwise stagey drama. Also, the technique allows Jacobson to integrate two distinctly different approaches to Dahmer — the birth of the monster, and the M.O. of the killer.
Jacobson’s insight into the criminal mind offers no easy answers. There is some speculation in the earlier timeline about the making of Jeffrey Dahmer, but no “Eureka!” moment that explains it all away. Credit Jacobson, whose script and direction delve deeply without drawing any black and white conclusions.
Perhaps that’s what’s spookiest about the man — that there is no obvious explanation for his sociopathy. Lots of Americans go thru the same sorts of stresses that Dahmer did, and almost none of them snap so violently. Jacobson explores the mystery but doesn’t answer it, and his portrayal rings true.
There is one glaring omission. Dahmer cannibalized some of his victims, and Dahmer completely ignores this fact. The omission makes one wonder if the movie isn’t maybe a little too sympathetic toward its subject. But a wonderfully understated ending that appears to just trail off, actually shows Jeffrey making an important choice. On reflection, it’s a symbolic act that, to most ethicists, invites righteous condemnation.
Is Dahmer scary? Not really, not like a horror movie, even though the music often overplays the tension. Is it creepy? Yes, if you don’t know who Jeffrey Dahmer is, although foreknowledge “spoils” much of the creepiness in the subject matter. So what adjectives fit Jacobson’s Dahmer? Sad. Disturbing. Awful. Tragic. One horrible scene made me wince, but Renner’s emotion was so pained that it was hard not to feel more pity than squeamishness.
Many people, myself included, don’t necessarily want to know about Jeffrey Dahmer. We don’t want to sympathize with him or understand him. It’s easier if we can believe him to be an aberration and a monster. What Dahmer strives for, though, is not sympathy and understanding, but objectivity, in direct response to people like me who would prefer to dismiss him as a devil. I’m not sure it succeeds completely, but it doesn’t fail.