review by Dan Lybarger, 22 November 2002

When Jeffrey Dahmer was on trial for murdering seventeen men in the early '90s, my roommate and I tuned into Court TV hoping to get a look at the world's most famous cannibal. Both of us were college students and, while we wouldn't admit it, wanted to know every detail about his heartless acts of violence. After a few minutes we quickly stopped reveling in other people's tragedies and decided to do something more exciting, like studying.

The defense and the prosecution had the rare gift of making Dahmer's cruelty as galvanizing as an 8:00 a.m. macroeconomics lecture. Worse, the man sitting at the defense table was not the defiant, brazenly demonic fellow we had imagined or even hoped to see. Instead he was sort of a geeky guy who simply blended with his surroundings.

This blandness enabled him to escape detection and capture for an inordinately long period of time. And it's what writer-director David Jacobson chooses to emphasize his is new biopic on the serial killer. Jacobson rightly concludes that his viewers probably know the extent of Dahmer's crimes and don't need any reminders or embellishments. Those who are longing to see Dahmer (Jeremy Renner) chow down on a seven-course meal of gore will be deeply disappointed. In fact, Jacobson avoids depicting the cannibalism directly. He even avoids courtroom scenes or Dahmer's arrest.

Before the title character appears on the screen, there's already a creepy sense that something is a bit off. As the voice of Patsy Cline longingly wails in the background, a series of machines stamp out little chocolate men. Thanks to the context, the candy looks strangely unappetizing. When Dahmer finally enters, he's wearing the same uniform that everyone at the plant is, making him a cog in a greater mechanism.

From this point on, Jacobson refuses to follow most of the serial killer movie rules. We do see Dahmer attack, but the victim's wounds are out of the frame. Only toward the end do we get to see any of the gore or dismemberment. Jacobson instead focuses on how everyone around Dahmer continually missed out on what now seem to be obvious signs of how dangerous he really was. Without the audience's hindsight, the supporting characters think that he's either just a sad drunk or a fellow who needs to learn how to pick up other guys at gay bars without first drugging them. When Dahmer tells a cop that he's had a bad night, can't sleep and just wants to take his lawn clippings (actually the hacked-up body of his first victim) to the dump at 3:00 a.m., foul play seems obvious to us. To the policeman pulling him over, however, it seems only a little strange.

Jacobson gives Dahmer a consideration that the murderer never game his victims. In a long encounter Dahmer has with a potential meal named Rodney (Artel Kayaru), Renner gets to show how loneliness and other frustrations led Dahmer to kill. The dialogue's a bit stiff and obvious, but the sequence gives a strong hint to the torments that made him a menace to others and himself without remotely excusing his actions. This is not small feat. In some ways, making Dahmer more human enables us to imagine how he was able to lure people to their doom.  At times the modest budget is a liability. Dahmer has few locations and gets talky. On the plus side, the cast is solid, and the lack of familiar stars makes the situations seem more believable and surprising. The only "name" actor in the cast is Bruce Davison (X-Men), who's wonderful as Dahmer's concerned but clueless father.

Jacobson and editor Bipasha Shom don't present Dahmer's story in chronological order and go for an almost stream-of-consciousness approach. Toward the end they even split the narrative between one of Dahmer's later attacks and his first murder. Most "based-on-a-true" story films aren't this creative. It may be a little off-putting and disorienting at first. The momentum of the narrative is slowed at times, but, in the end, Dahmer forces viewers to reach their own conclusions, which is oddly refreshing. Despite the meager resources available, Renner convincingly ages from Dahmer's teens to his late twenties.

Jacobson and his collaborators deserve a lot of credit for treating both Dahmer and his victims with respect. The film has been screening theatrically, but there is a forthcoming DVD with a fitfully insightful commentary track and a featurette. They seem quickly put together and don't add much to the package. The stylized cover showing a leering Renner is inappropriate because it doesn’t cue potential viewers on what often makes the movie work. Dahmer directed me to something I missed when I glimpsed the real killer:  sometimes the people who should fill us fill us with fear don't because they look just like everybody else.

Written and
Directed by:

David Jacobson

Bruce Davison
Jeremy Renner
Artel Kayaru

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult







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