Normally a movie with the kind of subject matter of Dahmer isn’t one I’d watch, but I decided to give this one a shot, as it’s an indie that’s supposed to be a little deeper or more intellectual than the typical Hollywood fare, and it got at least pretty good reviews. Plus I probably have a bias toward nonfiction, figuring it’s more likely to teach me something about its subject and/or feel more emotionally real to me if I know it’s depicting something that really happened rather than something make-believe.
But in the end I don’t know that I really got much more out of this low budget indie than I would have from a more conventional crime or horror movie.
The film mostly avoids taking the sensationalist route. It’s not quite as aggressively dull in that regard as Zoo, but really there’s not a lot of blood and guts here. The murders, the sex, the cannibalism, etc., etc. are suggested more than actually shown.
The filmmakers apparently assume people know the basics of the story, as I don’t think the movie would make a lot of sense taken on its own. There’s nothing about Dahmer being arrested, convicted, murdered in prison, etc. (other than a note at the end), but that’s not as egregious a case of leaving things up in the air as it normally would be if everyone watching already knows how things turned out in real life.
You also don’t get a sense from the film of how many victims there were. Only a small number are shown, as the film jumps back and forth non-chronologically among them, as well as flashing back even earlier. That can be a little confusing, though it’s not too bad.
So the focus isn’t so much on the violence itself as on the psychological interplay among the characters. That has potential, but it was really only OK for me. I don’t feel like I have any more insight into Dahmer’s specific mental illnesses now than I did before I watched the movie.
And most of the victims and other characters are ciphers. They do things like get drugged and stagger around, but not much else.
I did find Dahmer’s father to be a somewhat interesting character, as you sense that he—and other people in Dahmer’s life—has some degree of concern about him and wonders what is up with him, but really has no clue as to the magnitude of his sickness.
I also found myself warming somewhat to the African American character who gets the most screen time of any of Dahmer’s victims and would-be victims. I felt like I got to know him more, and could feel more about him.
Certainly one reaction the movie provokes is wonder that Dahmer got away with his crimes for as long as he did, as there are many occasions in the movie where someone seemingly has a very good reason to be suspicious but doesn’t act on it, at least not enough to catch him. These include incidents with law enforcement, such as the one where the cops return his barely conscious victim to him after he tells them the kid is just really drunk and he’ll look after him.
Some of that is simply hindsight. Some is likely a reflection of the fact that his victims were typically people that aren’t of much value to cops and most of society. But also, I think we have to be wary of letting cases like this encourage us to call for more activist law enforcement. I don’t particularly want cops to search more cars and dwellings, question more people more aggressively, etc. just to find one Dahmer while needlessly harassing ninety-nine—or nine hundred and ninety-nine—other people.
Anyway, I was just never drawn in in a big way by Dahmer. I got caught up only a little in the suspense of who would and who wouldn’t get away from him, and as a psychological study it’s only a little interesting. I almost felt like I had to remind myself of the magnitude of the events being depicted, and of the fact that they really happened, for it to affect me emotionally.