Teasing out a subversive portrait of a complex and rather subdued monster, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files unfolds with the same meticulousness exemplified by the eponymous serial killer. Building on the clinical and essential details of Dahmer’s clandestine life and grisly actions, director Chris James Thompson focuses on minutia without becoming myopic. Incorporating elements of talking-head confessionals, fictionalized reenactments, and archival footage, he approaches the material by carefully deconstructing Dahmer’s ordinary façade. In the staged moments, this experimental documentary resists crudity and accentuates the banal, observing Dahmer’s quotidian errands that include going to the optometrist, shopping for pet fish, drinking a tallboy Budweiser on a bench while waiting for the bus, and collecting supplies such as barrels, suitcases, and bleach. The lo-fi, Instagram-esque reenactments—shot in Super 16mm and ethereally scored—are deftly juxtaposed with, and effectively served by, information-laden interviews.
Thompson limits the first-person interviews to three supporting characters affected by Dahmer after he was taken into custody: erstwhile Oxford Apartments neighbor and infrequent lunch buddy Pamela Bass, homicide detective and intimate interrogator Pat Kennedy, and medical examiner Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen. Without forcing the idea, Thompson represents each of them as an aspect of Dahmer’s existence and intelligence. Still relatively incredulous, Bass functions as a witness to Dahmer’s quiet, amiable demeanor and personifies the trauma that resonated through the predominantly African-American housing complex in the wake of the discovery of bodily remains in Dahmer’s apartment. Kennedy, by far the most eloquent and animated, thoughtfully explains his interactions with Dahmer in the interrogation room, which even included discussions on alcoholism, Lutheranism, and the existence of God. Jentzen observes how the research on Dahmer’s apartment felt like “dismantling someone’s museum” and is able to expertly explain the highly scientific dismemberment of his victims. Bass and Kennedy are given brief asides to touch on their own demons with addiction, but it’s distracting for such a controlled film—and apprehended as such, as these moments are thankfully pushed to the periphery.
Occasionally unbalanced but never unfocused, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files is sprawling but terse; the lynchpin to its success is Thompson’s adroit editing, which blends ostensibly incongruous elements to coax a lucid portrait of a man who didn’t always possess mental clarity. In one reenacted sequence that comes closest to capturing Dahmer as the obsessive murderer he was, Thompson resists the gory elements; the camera follows Dahmer (portrayed by co-writer Andrew Swant) and his victim from a hotel lobby up a few flights of stairs and through a long hallway. When they enter their hotel room, the camera lingers momentarily and then cuts away, leaving Jentzen to specify the later discovery of gruesome evidence. It’s this inferred horror mixed with the matter-of-fact, procedural presentation of mutilation that truly demystifies and scintillates. Such restraint and detail are uncommon in these types of shock-value-ready true-horror stories, but the level-headed Thompson resists ostentatious impulses throughout most of this mercurial meditation on Dahmer’s life. Thompson has the tricky job of elucidating on the exhaustively documented events in 1991 Milwaukee, and yet The Jeffrey Dahmer Files feels unnervingly fresh, evoking a lean and loaded gut punch of comprehensively collected and communicated facets.