Dahmer (2002) is, at first blush, a fairly run-of-the-mill bad guy biopic, tracing the exploits of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer from late teenagerhood to just before his arrest, for a smorgasbord of crimes, at age 31. Jumping back and forth between the past and the present, the film fills in Dahmer’s personal history through frequent flashbacks, and paints a picture of him that turns out to be surprisingly—almost uncomfortably—compassionate. However, the flashbacks give the film a disjointed quality that makes it less effective as a thriller (or a horror film) than many of the more infamous serial-killer epics, such as those comprising the Silence of the Lambs oeuvre. Instead of charting a conventional course—killer becomes obsessed, murders, mutilates, and is eventually hunted down in a heart-pounding finale—Dahmer prefers to allow the audience to sit back and ponder its main character in all his multi-faceted weirdness. The problem is, despite Jeremy Renner’s commendable performance in the titular role, there’s really not that much to ponder.
The film opens towards the end of its story, just as Dahmer is about to become acquainted with his last couple of victims. We go with him through the depressing monotony of his working-class everyday life; he monitors machines at a chocolate factory that stamps out hundreds of Santa Clauses every day, to be shipped off to faraway cities where happy, well-adjusted people will consume them without a second thought. The juxtaposition of such an obviously disturbed character with fountains upon fountains of liquid chocolate turns out to be an apt metaphor for the way Dahmer sees his fellow man: as pliable, abundant, and, of course, tasty.
Dahmer clearly dreads most normal social situations—church, family, nightclubs, et cetera—and instead craves one-on-one interaction with other men. It is these pivotal encounters, presented in not-quite-reverse order, which director David Jacobson uses to try to characterize Dahmer as a sympathetic, if not empathetic, person. To this end, we witness young Dahmer perform his first murder (after being rejected by his first lover), endure an awkward, unhealthy relationship with his father, and try to keep his illicit proclivities under wraps while living in his grandmother’s house. While these vignettes are all painful to watch, they lack the depth and focus needed to really engender sympathy or understanding in the viewer. Dahmer just seems weirder and weirder—and harder and harder to relate to—as the film progresses.
At one point, the grandmother gets a serious scare when she discovers a fully-dressed male mannequin, stolen from a department store, hidden inside Dahmer’s closet. This is another apt metaphor for Dahmer’s precarious relationship with “normal” society; it is as though he intuits that his homosexuality alone is enough to condemn him utterly and, in the face of that social reality, he simply allows himself to carry out his most outré fantasies to their logical conclusion. He’s been taught that the evil associated with homosexuality is, perhaps, tantamount to the evils of rape and murder (to say nothing of cannibalism, necrophilia, and so on). Thus, through the film’s extensive flashbacks, we see Dahmer gradually develop a more and more unfettered sensibility about his own desires. One transgression gives way to the next, until his first murder, committed in the face of sexual rejection, seems like child’s play when compared with his last, which incorporates not only drugging, raping, and torturing the victim, but murdering, dismembering, and possibly eating him as well.
While the film’s attempt to explain the origins of Dahmer’s psychosis is admirable for its unorthodox storytelling, in the end it can’t quite accomplish what it sets out to do: make Dahmer a sympathetic character. Though there’s violence and intrigue aplenty (albeit at a snail’s pace), it seems that no examination of Dahmer’s life, no matter how detailed, can bring to light any redeeming qualities in his character. Unlike films such as Monster (2003) or even Red Dragon (2002), in Dahmer’s case, he seems to have deserved every iota of his reputation as an essentially evil man.