One of the neat tricks of Netflix’s Mindhunter is how it recasts the reverence with which Hollywood productions treat serial killers. In contrast to Hannibal Lecter, plainly framed as both villain and genius when first introduced in The Silence of the Lambs, the murderers in Mindhunter are offered charisma but no sympathy; the series is plain in its disdain for these men but frank about the celebrity they’ve attained. Their utility as research subjects further legitimizes their outsized sense of power, but Mindhunter always recognizes the limitations of their performances: No amount of information or speculation can predict a serial killer before one exists. There’s no single “why” that creates a serial killer—only a “when.”
Writer-director Marc Meyers’s prosaic coming-of-rage film My Friend Dahmer mostly neglects this advice, presenting Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) in his senior year of high school as a geyser of warning signs, a ticking time bomb of adolescent impotence and frustration. Within the first few minutes of the film, set in 1978, Jeffrey is shown leering at a local doctor (Vincent Kartheiser) on his daily run, tinkering with animal carcasses in a shed in the woods, and despondent in a domestic life consumed by marital strife. Jeffrey shuffles through scenes with a vacant countenance and an exaggerated, vampiric hunch. The only surprise in the film’s early scenes is that the omnipresent bullies at his Ohio high school don’t seem to notice that he exists.
My Friend Dahmer is based on a comic book project by John “Derf” Backderf that first started in 1994 that later grew into an acclaimed graphic novel. Portrayed in the film by Alex Wolff, Derf befriended Jeffrey for a few months in high school, and his book interrogates his own possible role in Dahmer’s trajectory toward becoming a serial killer. In reorienting his film around Jeffrey’s tortured psyche, Meyers’s screenplay ends up stuck in an awkward mode of empathy, trying to paint Dahmer as a typically fucked-up teenager just as it illuminates an exceptionally disturbed criminal mind. The film wants to treat him like a character, but it invariably frames him like a specimen.
This duality isn’t just disingenuous but incredibly tedious. The film’s most prominent subplot involves Jeffrey’s ill-fated friendship with Derf and a few other class jokers. After Jeffrey imitates a local interior designer with cerebral palsy, Derf invites him into their small social circle, apparently seeing Jeffrey as a comic performance artist. Their friendship, though genuine, is built on Jeffrey’s willingness to play a “spaz” in public places for laughs, a scenario repeated long after it reveals the exploitation at the root of their relationship. But the film’s implicit suggestion that there’s a thin line distinguishing future comedians from future murderers is strangely compelling.
Jeffrey, though, has more psychic hurdles to overcome: a mentally ill mother (Anne Heche) and meek father (Dallas Roberts), increasingly intense gay attractions, and an ongoing urge to collect and tear open animal carcasses. My Friend Dahmer handles these matters with a brusqueness that’s off-putting, though that’s perhaps indicative of the film’s period milieu, where American flags are ubiquitous and deviations from social norms are “cool” until they’re simply “creepy.” Meyers does his best work subtly characterizing the Midwest in this post-Vietnam, post-bicentennial moment, where a renewed sense of patriotism feels a lot like a plea for the return of normative cultural values. Looming and fatefully lonely and unloved, the film’s teenage Dahmer is a clear reminder that the social fabric has irrevocably frayed.