Friday, October 7, 2011


When I was a kid, I was fascinated by true-life stories.  I went through scientific texts about dinosaurs at the age of six, moved on to biographies a few years later and, by the early 1990s, I had transitioned to true crime stories.  Not too surprisingly, that got me interested in serial killers --- not so much in the "finally, someone else who tortures small animals" way, but more in the "I can't believe these people exist" way.  Of course, Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy were executed around that time, so there were TV movies, news programs and books galore on the subject.  The big news from this time, though, was the arrest and investigation into the murders (and other bizarre crimes) of Jeffrey Dahmer.  In the years since, I have read up on Bundy (I have family members who actually saw him), and got creeped out by Brian Dennehy's performance as Gacy.  I never looked much farther into Dahmer, because his case was pretty messed up.  But here I am, trying to watch only horror movies for a month, and I found a biopic (which I don't usually like) on a serial killer who operated in my general geographical area --- and it has Hollywood's new "it" guy, Jeremy Renner.  I don't know how much I'll enjoy it, but here goes nothing...

Dahmer, obviously, tells the story of Jeffrey Dahmer (Jeremy Renner) at a few crucial moments in his life.  This film doesn't cover his whole life, or even his most active time as a killer, but instead jumps back and forth between the events that led up to his first murder, as well as the victim who got away. 
"Shit!  I forgot to securely handcuff my latest victim --- er, I mean, I forgot my wallet"
And that's pretty much how the movie goes.  In modern times, Jeffrey works at a chocolate factory and lures young men to his apartment, where he drugs and murders them.  There are no "sexual chocolate" jokes, thankfully.  When the story bounces back to the past, we see Jeffrey at different points, but always awkward; for the most part, though, it sticks with Jeffrey's development from awkward adolescent to creepy killer.
Creepy much?

There are really only a handful of actors in Dahmer, but they are what makes this worth watching.  Jeremy Renner was outstanding.  Going into this movie, I would not have thought it possible to give a sympathetic performance as a serial killer, but he did it, and he was still able to be creepy and frightening at the same time.  I have only one problem with his performance: his creepiness was so complete that I have difficulty imagining anyone willingly spending time with Dahmer.  The only other recognizable actor in the cast is Bruce Davidson, who plays Jeffrey's father as a bland authority figure.  There is, however, a surprisingly good supporting performance from Artel Great, who played Rodney, one of Jeffrey's victims.  It's only "surprising" to me since he hasn't really done much else of note --- his charisma and the chemistry between Great and Renner are what kept me watching.
Jeffrey picks up Rodney in a knife store.  No joke.

While the acting was very impressive, I was confused by writer/director David Jacobson.  Obviously, he worked well with his actors, and I thought he handled the tension (sexual and murder-ific) between Rodney and Jeffrey efficiently.  I don't get the script, though.  The flashbacks to Dahmer's youth come with little rhyme or reason, feeling disjointed and lost in time.  I could never tell how old Dahmer was supposed to be, because he went back and forth with his facial hair and glasses-wearing habits.  It's also difficult to believe Jeremy Renner as a nerdy outcast, given his appearance.  Until we finally get around to meeting the character that would eventually become Dahmer's first victim, none of these flashbacks felt like they were going anywhere and they were visually interchangeable. 
What are they looking at?
I was also surprised to find that Dahmer steers mostly clear of the more sensational aspects of Dahmer's crimes.  He does bust out a power drill early on, and we do see a severed head in a box, but the film doesn't mention cannibalism or spend much time on dismemberment.  Honestly, that makes this a far easier film to watch, but it's peculiar that there isn't more time spent on the more monstrous things Dahmer did.  In fact, we only see two murders in the whole movie.  Many others are implied, but only two are shown.

That just means that Jacobson didn't want to make an exploitative movie out of a subject that had already been squeezed dry by this point --- there is a comic book titled Jeffrey Dahmer vs. Jesus Christ, if you want to see exploitation at its best.  I am fine with that choice.  I am not okay with the choice of glossing over the other fifteen murders Dahmer confessed to.  I understand why it was done, but I disagree with the choice; Jacobson did a shockingly good job humanizing a notorious serial killer, and showing him kill piles of people would negate that effort.  Honestly, I would have preferred if Jacobson simply took his inspiration from Jeffrey's life, but not his name; when you make a biopic and give it a cover-all title like Dahmer (instead of, say, "What's Eating Jeffrey Dahmer?"), you are expected to cover a broader slice of the subject's life than Jacobson does. Jacobson's choices lead to a character that is more sympathetic, but a story that meanders on its way to the climax.

Despite my problems with the story, I can't get over just how surprised I was by the acting in this film.  There is even a moment in Dahmer where your heart almost breaks for Jeffrey, when Rodney seems willing to accept him, warts and all.  Of course, Rodney hasn't seen the corpse in the bedroom, but his intention is touching.  I wouldn't call this an enjoyable viewing or an engaging script, but the acting talent is magnetic.

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