Dazed 100er Ross Lynch stars in the film about a suburban teenager becoming a violent murderer
Jeffrey Dahmer is one of America’s most notorious serial killers. Dubbed “the Milwaukee cannibal”, he kidnapped, raped, and murdered 17 men and boys in the Midwest between 1978 and 1991 – the year that he was finally captured. The stories that accompany his crimes are chilling and gruesome: he kept the remains of most of his victims – when he was arrested, police found various body parts in his refrigerator, prompting Dahmer to admit to cannibalism – and attempted to turn some of his captees into living “zombies”, drilling holes in their skulls and pouring acid into their brains.
But before he devolved into a ruthless murderer, Dahmer – although it’s unsettling to consider – was once a suburban teenager, just trying to navigate his way through the trials and tribulations of high school and a troubled family life, and make it out the other side alive. As he himself once said, “When I was a kid, I was just like anybody else.” It was this idea that captured the imagination of American writer-director Marc Meyers, resulting in his latest film, My Friend Dahmer, a gripping exploration of Dahmer’s senior year at school leading up to his first murder, just three weeks after graduating.
Meyers, who describes himself as “a character-motivated filmmaker”, had been toying with the idea of producing a portrait of a serial killer as a young man for a while before he stumbled across the acclaimed comic book, also titled My Friend Dahmer, by Dahmer’s onetime school buddy Derf Backderf. “When I read the book I was reminded that, although in hindsight we know where Jeffrey’s headed as a monster, back then he was just another kid who lived on a street, had neighbours, had fairweather friends, rode a school bus, didn’t do his homework and was – just like so many other teenagers – trying to find a way to talk to people about what was on his mind. That commonality was the unique quality behind the story for me.”
“In hindsight we know where Jeffrey’s headed as a monster, back then he was just another kid who lived on a street, had neighbours, had fairweather friends, rode a school bus” – Marc Meyers
As such, one of Meyer’s biggest priorities was to find an actor that would lend the necessary air of veracity and versatility to Dahmer’s story, and – thanks to former Disney kid and Dazed 100er Ross Lynch – this task proved resoundingly successful. “Ross is enormously charming, talented and smart,” the director enthuses. “He has all this Disney training, as well as being a trained dancer, and as soon as I met him I felt that, given the opportunity, he could act the part – and he proved me right,” This is no understatement. Lynch is mesmerising in the title role, his natural jock-like appearance disguised behind big 70s spectacles, a mop of long blond hair, and an increasingly hunched, lumbering gait that reflects Dahmer’s increasing introversion as the film progresses.
When we first meet him, Jeff Dahmer is a science nerd whose primary interest is finding roadkill and dissolving the dead animals in his dedicated “lab”, a wooden shed located in the woodland surrounding his family home. He doesn’t have any friends, save for one lanky kid who is also the prime target of the school bullies, and has developed a secret obsession with an older doctor who goes jogging past his house “every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”
His father, a similarly geeky chemist, is desperate that his eldest son take a different, more sociable path – “friends are our connection to this world,” he says emphatically while trying to persuade Jeff to join more clubs. As fate would have it, Jeff will soon be the focus of his very own club – “The Dahmer Fan Club” – started by Derf (Alex Wolff) and his two friends, who notice Dahmer feigning palsy and breaking into mock epileptic fits during class and crown him their new rebel hero. But even this newfound popularity can’t rid Dahmer of his demons. As his mother’s mental health deteriorates and his parents’ marriage begins to dissolve, Dahmer turns to drink as a method of escape, and begins to yield to his desires, both normal and abnormal, with an increasing fervour.
“When writing the script I thought, ‘I’m going to create a ticking time bomb,’” Meyers elaborates, snapping his fingers faster and faster to elucidate his point. “Like when it’s going to snap or turn?” This is why, he explains, he chose to share some of Dahmer’s most private moments – from outbursts of intense anguish or arousal to ones of extreme violence – with the viewer. “By showing what he’s doing when no one else is around and creating a contrast between his personal and private personas, I knew it would create this growing air of suspense – like when are those urges going to bleed over into the rest of his life?”
“These characters are all self-consumed – as teenagers or as parents – they are missing the signs; not ignoring them but missing them” – Marc Meyers
This sensitive, non-sensationalised navigation of the line between Dahmer the boy and Dahmer the murderer-in-the-making proves the film’s most powerful quality, not least because it invites a surprising amount of compassion for Dahmer; as his parents neglect him and his so-called friends exploit him, even as he displays more and more obvious signs of inner-torment, you begin to feel as much sorry for him as you do scared of him. “I wanted to put together in a dramatic fashion all of the forces at play that contributed to the man he will become without focussing on one element more than another,” says Meyers. “It’s the existence of all of them mixed in with a guy who’s wired wrong, and has his own ghastly urges, that together creates a storm.”
And yet, he concedes, My Friend Dahmer, is a “cautionary tale”. “These characters are all self-consumed – as teenagers or as parents – they are missing the signs; not ignoring them but missing them. No one’s really to blame but then everyone’s to blame at the same time.” It’s a message that Meyers subtly, but undoubtedly, succeeds in conveying. In what is arguably the film’s most excruciating scene, taking place shortly after the teenagers’ graduation, Derf turns to Dahmer and asks if he’s OK. It’s a question that no-one has thought to put to him before, but one that is asked so late in his decline as to be laughable. Dahmer softly and sadly informs Derf that he’s “just like anybody else”, echoing the serial killer’s real words – and the taunting thought you’re left with is: if someone had done something, could this statement have remained true?