When apprehended in 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer — killer of 17 men, cannibal and body-part hoarder — quickly entered the pantheon of single-name-famous serial killers. Much has been written about Dahmer’s gruesome crimes, but perhaps more fascinating was the 2012 graphic novel My Friend Dahmer. In it, syndicated cartoonist John “Derf” Backderf — whose weekly feature “The City” ran in this paper for years — recounted being friends with a teenage Jeff Dahmer during their senior year in a northern Ohio town. And yes, young Dahmer was an odd guy — but who could have guessed how horribly wrong things would go after graduation?
Now, that reflective work has been adapted into an eponymous film, directed by Marc Meyers, who co-wrote the script with Backderf. Set in 1978, it is a quietly unnerving coming-of-age story about a troubled young man. He is seemingly transitioning from a shy boy beset with confusing thoughts — “I like to pick up road kill, but I’m trying to quit” — to an adult willing to follow through on disturbing impulses.
The affectless and slump-shouldered Dahmer (Ross Lynch) wanders through his life against the backdrop of normal adolescence as practiced by Middle American boys: band practice, goofing off in basements and parking lots, enduring boring classes, talking about girls and making plans for life. He is there, and not there.
At home, Dahmer’s parents fight, and bitterly divorce. Dad (Dallas Roberts) knows things aren’t right with his son, but his corrective measures are clumsy. (He tears down the backyard hut in which Dahmer indulges in his preferred hobby — performing various disintegration processes on road kill.) Dahmer’s mom (Anne Heche) is mentally ill, and too caught up in her own self-serving mania to see how lost her son is becoming.
In school, Dahmer is teased or ignored. Then one day he stages a fake seizure in the hallway, grunting and writhing on the floor. The stunt earns him the admiration of a small band of nerdy dudes, helmed by prolific doodler “Derf” Backderf (Alex Wolff). Dahmer joins in the group, but due to his social awkwardness and oddness, he never quite integrates. The guys do appreciate his “spazzes” — the nickname for his fake fits, which they also call “Dahmers” — and deploy him in other pranks. He is in, but not in.
The film is studiously low-key; those who revel in the sensational aspects of serial-killer stories might be bored, but I found the slow-motion unraveling and re-building of Dahmer to be fascinating. For us, every action Dahmer takes, however small, is charged with what we know happens later. It’s all speculative, but when we see Dahmer fondling bones, spying on a handsome male jogger, or drifting away from his few acquaintances, it feels portentous and even explanatory. Perhaps nothing would have prevented Dahmer from the horrific path he eventually chose, but the film suggests that there was little in his troubled adolescent life to throw up any roadblocks. It’s a haunting story.
John Backderf will attend the 7:30 p.m. Fri., Dec. 1, and 2:20 p.m. Sat., Dec. 2, screenings and do a Q&A.