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« Tribeca 2017: Ashley Bell's one for the ages in Psychopaths | Main | Drag Race S937: Madonna & 'Snatch Game' Do-Overs »

Tribeca 2017: My Friend Dahmer

And here's Jason Adams reporting again from the Tribeca Film Festival.

"Even more, they were boys, with their cars, summer jobs... oh my god... are you one of them?"

Sufjan Stevens sings that to the victims of John Wayne Gacy Jr. in his song titled after that serial killer, an attempt at finding some sort of empathy or a modicum of understanding buried beneath the front porch of a gay man's home turned graveyard. And now, taking a similar path through darkness towards more darkness, comes My Friend Dahmer, an adaptation of Derf Backderf's graphic novel about the writer's experiences going to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer...

For those of us who came of age in the 1970s and 80s the specter of gay serial killers hung over our earliest comprehension of what it meant to be gay, like a disturbed prologue to the plague that came riding in on the heels of Gacy and Dahmer, two horsemen of a homosexual apocalypse. Gacy confessed to his crimes in the suburbs of Chicago in 1978 and like a passing of a baton that same year was when Dahmer began his killing spree in Milwaukee, a mere 90 miles away. There among the handful (handful being generous) of gay characters we saw on television - Billy Crystal's Jodie on Soap and Lance Loud on An American Family - stood these men, clowns and cannibals, reported on by the media with a religious-like fervor; just some the horrors awaiting those daring to live that ol' gay lifestyle.

My Friend Dahmer steps us back from that abyss and sits us down in a little wooden desk next to a kid named Jeff. It asks us to try to wrap our heads around something impossible and yet profoundly necessary - how a human being, a boy made of flesh and blood who walked through the same malls and parking lots that we did, could be capable of what Dahmer was capable of. Jeffrey Dahmer couldn't see the people he murdered as people - isn't it vital that we be better? That we try?

15 years ago Jeremy Renner gave the performance of his career (still) playing Dahmer but it's possible he's had the definitive portrait now snatched away, so good is Ross Lynch as teenage Jeff. Like a perversion of the usual coming-of-age story, a butcher's bildungsroman, Lynch and writer-director Marc Meyers show us a young man swerving violently between mania and glassy-eyed nothingness, trying to work out just the right dose of each to build his public-private derangement upon. What's the right shape for a human shaped person, they ask? Bullied and ignored, Dahmer's a joke to the only people who give him the time of day - he stages lisping spazz-attacks in order to get any attention, and shows off his jars of roadkill for fun.

The graphic novel source materialBut My Friend Dahmer is better than being just an excuse to leer at the freak, or boiling Dahmer's psychosis down to having been called faggot in the school-yard. It reveals in emotionally painstaking detail the way that every outlet Jeff has available to him is slammed shut, by both external and internal forces. There's his erratic home-life (Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts are particularly good as his mentally ill mother and frayed nerve dad); his thoughtlessly cruel schoolmates who pay him to flop around on the floor; and especially the absurd impossibility of any sexual release - a sub-plot involving a jogging doctor who catches Jeff's eye, like so much of this movie, is a gag minus the punchline; we laugh lest we despair. 

And on the other side of all these slammed doors, Dahmer finally finds himself. And we despair. But we know. We must try to know. We must look, and watch, and listen, and know, the darkness that scuttles off from the light we shine upon it. Or as Sufjan sings it, "In my best behavior I am really just like him; look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid."

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Reader Comments (6)

I swear from the snapshot I thought that kid on the left was Joan Allen

April 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

I missed the episode of "Austin and Ally" where Austin abandoned music to become a serial killer. Always interesting to see how Disney Channel stars (usually actresses) try to break free from that safe image.

April 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrevity

Anne Heche deserves an Oscar-worthy role. My God, please.

April 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

That snapshot fascinates me. Joan Allen included.

Never heard of this American serial killer (you got so many!) or the Renner biopic before. This was a good read.

April 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Peggy Sue - And they say America is a country that doesn't make things anymore.

This seems so strangely fascinating, I'm looking forward to it.

April 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNick T

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November 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoel

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