It would be interesting to learn what somebody who had never heard of Jeffrey Dahmer thought of Marc Meyers's strange, tonally unsettling independent drama. Based on a graphic novel by "Derf" Backderf, who grew up with the future serial killer in small-town Ohio, My Friend Dahmer offers happy summer cinemagoers a portrait of the lunatic as a confused young man.
There are pointers to the grim perversions – necrophilia and the preservation of inner organs – that characterised Dahmer’s reign of horror in the 1980s, but, before the final madness arrives, little confirmation of his psychopathy is offered.
Those unaware of Dahmer's fate could see the film as an angular take on 1970s loserdom played to melodies from the Lars Von Trier songbook (stark, liquid camerawork; awkward riffs on learning disability). Most of the audience will experience something else: a variation on Carrie that ends with the actual death of 17 men.
Like that Stephen King story, My Friend Dahmer reminds us what a terrifying, disabling place the American high school can be. Early on, we learn that young Jeffrey (Ross Lynch) – pudding-bowl hair and bad glasses like Philip Seymour Hoffman in Boogie Nights – is coping badly with squabbling parents.
His bi-polar mom (an excellent Anne Heche) insists the family eat her under-cooked chicken. His dad (Dallas Roberts), a chemist, foolishly lends Jeffrey acid to help experiments in the preservation of dead animals. Unsurprisingly, Dahmer is bullied at school, but, out of nowhere, he wins oddball friends by perfecting a noisy impersonation of people with learning difficulties. Soon he is “spazzing” for their entertainment in the local mall.
Lynch works hard at perfecting the slumped, dead-eyed lurch of the perpetual loner. The film’s unwillingness to break through his carapace can be frustrating, but one thing that sets such psychopaths aside is surely their impenetrability. The film is not so naive as to suggest that some intervention could have made Dahmer a different person.
My Friend Dahmer is nonetheless a sad film about squandered opportunity. Everybody is losing out in this grim, claustrophobic version of the late 1970s. Not for nothing does the director insert snippets from Pere Ubu's Final Solution in the closing minutes. "Don't need a cure/ Don't need a cure/ Need a final solution." Eugh!