DAHMER Introduction/review for The Cutting Room, Episode 3 By Joseph Christiana
The eponymous real life killer of our first film needs no introduction. His name is uttered on school yard playgrounds with an ominous reverence reserved for angry gods. In kitchens his name falls from the mouths of mothers with a fear masked as disgust. Around water coolers and on internet fan boards, he's discussed in tones of false bravado and irreverence that surely belies a nervous uncertainty. Indeed, the name DAHMER has come to embody the latent monstrosities we secretly believe is inherent in us all. He is our darkest fear, our most repressed desires; he is our bogey man.
Directed by David Jacobsen, DAHMER is a 2002 film that takes a cursory look into the life of one of America's most infamous killers. On the surface Jeffrey Dahmer is every serial killer cliché: he's unassuming, quiet and disappears into the fabric of humanity. He has a menial job at a chocolate factory and generally keeps to himself. He's the kind of guy you might find at a comic book convention or playing dungeons and dragons. But Dahmer, of course, has a hobby of much different nature: He lures attractive young men up to his apartment, doses them, dismembers them, screws them, and eats them. Not necessarily in that order.
After witnessing a tone setting kidnapping and killing, which nearly leads to Dahmer's demise, we move swiftly into another kidnapping. Dahmer invites an attractive young man up to his apartment for beers and romance. During this date, which will prove to be his last, Dahmer reminisces about the circumstances leading up to his first killing, when he picked up a young wrestler as a high school student living with his parents. Jacobsen intercuts past and present, showing us many disturbing details which have now become legendary.
Legendary and disturbing, yes, but with more restraint than I had anticipated. Because of Dahmer's reputation preceding the film, I felt a sense of dread for what I was about to see. But although there are certainly gruesome and graphic moments, Jacobsen doesn't resort to the splatter fest a lesser director would have reveled in. Despite that restraint, or maybe because of it, he was able to sustain dread and horror throughout. A commendable display of craftsmanship.
Now, the trouble with any biopic is that the audience invariably knows the ending before they even enter the theater. So the challenge for a filmmaker is not to surprise an audience by what happens to them at the end of their plight, but rather to get us to empathize with them as they endure the trials and tribulations of their lives. Empathy is especially problematic with serial killer biopics for obvious reasons.
I realized that the reason so many serial killer films centers on an investigation is because the investigator provides a character we can empathize with. Without them we'd generally stand in judgment of the main character, which usually means we stand apart from the film, which generally takes us right out of the drama.
There's no investigation in DAHMER, and no good guys to side with. Jacobsen walks a fine line. He flirts dangerously close to asking us to sympathize with the monster he presents. In fact, there's a scene where Dahmer cries uncontrollably after committing his first murder, and I'm curious, guys, were you feeling vindicated because this monster felt terrible about what he'd done… or were you feeling bad for him, just a little, because he couldn't help what he was.