Jeremy Renner in Dahmer.
Director/writer David Jacobson tells the story of one of America's most infamous and gruesome serial killers. Through a mix of flashbacks interspersed with later events we see the journey of how this outwardly benign and thoroughly unremarkable human being turned into a remorseless monster. Jacobson wisely avoids exploiting most of the grislier details of the slayings and instead focuses on the personality behind the killer and his social interaction with victims and family members. This does not make it any easier to watch. On the contrary it only adds to the sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach that a person is really capable of such acts. Would be thrill seekers be forewarned; this is neither a slasher movie nor a detective story. It is a character study.
Jeremy Renner does a capable job of portraying Dahmer without playing it as a caricature. Artel Kayaru does an excellent job as Rodney, the close call that gets away. In the main thrust of the plot we see the night Jeffrey Dahmer crossed his path and lured him back to his apartment. Rodney innocent of the fact that a fresh kill is lying in the bed in the next room.
There are at least three other scenes worth mentioning in this horrifying yet fascinating story. One is the now infamous occasion when one of Dahmer's would be victims manages to get away, but in a drug induced state, only to be handed back to the killer by the police. This scene, in particular, points out the inherent racism and homophobia that allowed Dahmer to go undetected for so long. As he later tells Rodney 'You're just mad because you're gay and black. You're at the bottom.' Another gripping moment occurs when a young Jeffrey is afraid to let his father see the contents of his old chemistry set. After convincing his father that it contains pornographic material we are shown that, in fact, it contains a human head. Perhaps the best scene concerns his first murder. Dahmer picks up a hitchhiker and eventually kills him then must figure out a way to dispose of the body. We see his revulsion at first when he must hack the body to pieces on the kitchen floor but it quickly turns to indifference. Before our eyes a serial killer is born.
Some may argue that Jacobson comes dangerously close to asking for sympathy for the devil. I guess it depends on whether you believe evil is innate or a learned behavior. All he is really saying is that, like it or not, Dahmer was a human being just like you or I and perhaps the knowledge that the spectrum of human behavior includes such atrocities is too much for some to think about.
Dion Basco and Jeremy Renner in Dahmer
Jeffrey Dahmer walked upright and had opposable thumbs, but those are the only traits by which I would call him "...a human being...". He sought out his victims like an old farmer looking at a pen of pigs trying to decide which would be the easiest to catch and butcher. Unlike a farmer, who kills for food, Dahmer did it for pleasure, oh wait. Anyway...he was a monster in the likes of Josef Mengele. No "human" could treat another human as sadistically as they did.
As Patrick wrote, this film does attempt to solicit some sympathy from the audience by showing Dahmer frustrated with his family, sexuality and his gruesome murders. He had to scramble to avoid his father discovering a severed head he hid in his closet. He was so insecure about himself sexually that when he had sex with men in clubs, he had to drug them to a near comatose state first. He is shown crying from stress over cutting his first victim into pieces.
No doubt psychiatrists could fill volumes of books trying to analyze Dahmer. He felt unloved by his parents. He felt sexually inadequate. He felt powerless in a world in which he had no control. All of these things and more could be attributed to him wanting to kill men and then roll around on their naked bodies before amputating and dissecting them. However, everyone in this world has felt those things at times and never did what he did.
Jeremy Renner does a remarkable job playing Dahmer as a shy, lonely guy who only comes out of his shell when pursuing a victim. This film does attempt to make you sympathize with him. It goes into great detail over his first kill, making it seem as if it was merely a failed sexual seduction that turned violent. Before cutting the body into pieces he has to drink alcohol. He is shown being disturbed by this murder, crying hysterically after disposing of the body.
With that, this film succeeds. It takes us into the heart of a sadistic killer. We never come to understand why he did what he did, but we do see him struggling with his desires and his macabre way of connecting to another person. He tells one potential victim, "I am a pervert. I am an exhibitionist, a masturbator and a killer."
This disturbing film is not a completely true story, it begins by stating that some of the characters are fictional, but Dahmer did commit the murders depicted. We will never know what lurked in his mind and that is probably a good thing. Anyone who can justify to themselves killing innocent people is clearly not in their right mind. Dahmer looked like an ordinary human, but it was just his costume hiding the monster within. On November 28, 1994 the world became a better place.
Photos © Copyright Peninsula Films Inc. (2002)