It’s difficult to pinpoint the source of a person’s drive to kill 17 men, have sex with their bodies (in some cases with their viscera), consume their organs, and reduce the rest to bones — but damned if My Friend Dahmer doesn’t offer a fascinating Portrait of the Artist as a Young Freak. No humans are killed in the movie, however. It’s a teen pic. Marc Meyers’s sick, deadpan comedy (based on an excellent graphic novel by “Derf” Backderf) follows the incipient serial killer (former Disney teen star Ross Lynch) through his senior year. We watch as Dahmer evolves from alienated loner to semi-popular class clown, all while acidifying the carcasses of roadkill and fantasizing about men — particularly a doctor (Vincent Kartheiser) who jogs by his house most days.
Adding to the mess is Jeffrey’s home life. His mom (Anne Heche) is wigging out from a mix of bipolar illness and tranquilizers, at one point insisting that her family consume undercooked chicken: “We eat our mistakes.” His dad (Dallas Roberts) — before filing for divorce — nobly tries to guide his son on a path towards normalcy. He knocks down the backyard shack where young Jeffrey keeps bones and jars of dissolving animals and then buys his son a pair of dumbbells to help him attract girls. “I see things in you I don’t like in myself,” says the dad. “I want you to have friends in a way I never could.” That’s very touching but Jeffrey is already closing in on the idea that the only way to get close to other people is to ingest them.
We could blame genetics and/or mental illness (Dahmer would be diagnosed with borderline, schizotypal, and psychotic disorders), but Meyers has added a soupçon of sociology. My Friend Dahmer might be the most ineffably ’70s movie since Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. We don’t need to hear Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech to understand that 1978 is a year of toxic spiritual drift. And the fashions! A shot of the Dahmer family sitting around the kitchen table in their huge glasses could be a museum diorama labeled “Hominis Nerdus, late 20th century.” Dahmer’s high school is a scruffy, ungainly mosaic into which he somehow blends.
Lynch is opaque in the spookiest way. His hair helmet shades his eyes. His posture is a frozen slump. There’s something insectoid about him. Gazing on a hallway of classmates to whom his presence means nada, he launches into a routine inspired by his mother’s palsied interior decorator. He screams, then totters around knocking books out of students’ hands and leaning into their faces. He throws himself to the floor, where he bucks and judders. His outburst inspires a group of male pranksters (the leader played by Alex Wolff, another kid-show veteran) to venerate Dahmer as a gonzo visionary. They think his aggression is performance art. They urge him to disrupt classrooms, libraries, and grocery stores. But soon even they are dismayed by his reek of marijuana and vodka. They warn Dahmer to stay away from one lurching, long-haired stoner in particular. He’s a psycho, they say.
It would be misleading to call My Friend Dahmer “entertaining,” but I got off on its fuzzy sense of dread, its poker-faced ghoulishness. Sometimes, as when Dahmer asks a resistant girl to the prom, I thought I was watching a standard teen drama, and remembered my own weird hobbies and nerdy alienation and wondered if I could ever have been that guy. I do dissect people in print …
No, I draw the line at viscera-fucking. I can’t go there and hope you can’t, either. Late in My Friend Dahmer, Jeffrey definitively parts ways with the rest of us when he takes a big dog into the forest and brings out a knife. (Does he go through with it? No spoilers.) He dreams of having the doctor in bed with him — unconscious — and waits in the bushes with a baseball bat in anticipation of the daily jog. It’s as if he’s drifting away from us, transforming from the depressed teen in the broken home with the nutty mother into DAHMER. Meyers humanizes him without minimizing his monstrousness — or his mystery. The scariest thing of all? His mundanity.