If Netflix’s compelling F.B.I.-profiling drama Mindhunter wasn’t enough to satisfy your serial-killer appetite—or, indeed, if it stoked it—there’s a movie being released November 3 that might do the trick. My Friend Dahmer, from writer-director Marc Meyers, is an eerie and effective portrait of serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer in his beyond-troubled teen years, a quick hop into the mind of a loner kid who was about to become a monster.
Well, maybe it doesn’t hop into Dahmer’s mind so much as distressingly bounce off of it, opaque and unknowably alien as a sociopath’s psychology can be. But the film is still an interesting depiction of how someone like that might function in our relatively normal world, just before he begins killing people and is thus lost to an unfathomable life of secrets. My Friend Dahmer doesn’t present some rueful wish that, oh, young Jeffrey might have made it if only someone had reached out to him. But it does extend him some human compassion, letting us see how the tragedy of his loneliness, spurred by the horror of his dark compulsions, made pre-murderous Dahmer something of a victim himself.
In adapting the graphic novel by John “Derf” Backderf, based on his own experiences as a sorta-friend of Dahmer’s in late high school, Meyers softens some of the grim aspects of Dahmer’s life. We see him drinking, but perhaps not the full extent of the alcoholism that gripped him for most of his adolescence and adulthood. And Dahmer’s particular sexual fixations—which, in large part, were the motives for his murders—are only alluded to and hinted at. This lessens the film’s impact some, but probably makes it more watchable; getting too close to all that seething, violent pathology might be too much bear.
What undeniably works in Meyers’s film is Ross Lynch as Dahmer. Mostly known as a chipper Disney Channel actor and singer, Lynch seizes the opportunity to reveal a more serious side. This is nothing new for teen idols—indie film has been a proving ground for many, from Zac Efron getting peed on by Nicole Kidman to Nick Jonas hazing the hell out of some freshmen. But Lynch has a trickier task than just being profane or bawdy, and he handles it well, giving a well-observed performance that doesn’t feel like an effortful strain—or like a squeaky-clean kid merely trying to dirty himself up.
There’s instead a great deal of sensitivity afforded to young Dahmer, a glimmer of panic that rises up in Lynch’s shuffling, hunched bearing and hooded eyes. (It must also be said that Lynch was well cast in terms of reflecting the real-life Dahmer’s alarming handsomeness.) There’s a sense of entropy about Dahmer’s condition; he cannot reverse the escalation of his impulses and fantasies. But in moments of My Friend Dahmer, he seems to be fighting against them, or at least to be frightened of them, which gives lie to the notion of serial killers as emotionless sadists. They may lack the empathy that prevents most of us from harming other people, but there still can perhaps be a range of feeling there, something disturbingly relatable, similar to our own experiences in the world. Lynch and Meyers locate that troubling familiarity, drawing Jeffrey in close to us before, of course, letting him drift off into a nightmare.
Lynch is supported by solid, considerate performances from Dallas Roberts as Dahmer’s worried, frustrated father, and Alex Wolff as Backderf, who saw something strange and funny in Dahmer and coaxed it out of him. (Anne Hechegives an outsized, and oddly fun, performance as Dahmer’s erratic mother.) Derf and his friends would encourage Dahmer to “spaz,” faking seizures to cause disruptions at school or the mall. The way that Wolff and Tommy Nelson, as Neil, another friend, play these boys’ dawning realizations that something deeper may be wrong with their odd pal/prop is really well calibrated. Stupid adolescent bravado gives way to fear and concern as Dahmer wanders down a path that goes far beyond a regular teenage boy’s taste for chaos and disorder.
In a way, it’s awfully sad watching Dahmer’s friends come to understand that something about him is out of their reach, that he is not a simple outcast going through an awkward phase. We feel a strange kind of pity for Dahmer in these moments, as the bright world turns from him and his urges swallow him up. But in the end, the film is careful to give us a chilling, subtle reminder of who we are actually talking about here, and what he would go on to do to 17 people. My Friend Dahmer, though at times too glancing in its portraiture, presents a fascinating conundrum that unsettled me for days after seeing the film. Or maybe it’s less a conundrum and more of an exercise, seeing how much compassion we are able, or willing, to grant the seemingly compassionless—or, at least, the form they take in a fictionalized film. The answer unnerved me, as it may well you.