David Jacobson's "Dahmer" is an admirably serious attempt to explore the twisted psyche of notorious Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Ironically, for all its painstaking qualities, it is not as successful in illuminating that troubled individual as the low-low-budget, direct-to-video "The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer" (1993), directed by David R. Bowen and starring Carl Crew, who also wrote the script.
Jacobson had a large enough budget to shoot establishing shots in Milwaukee and carefully blend in L.A. settings, but Bowen had no choice but to shoot in Southern California without apologies. The lack of authentic settings--and the presence of some cheesy Grand Guignol props--was ultimately not so important because Bowen and Crew were able to evoke the internalized homophobia that motivated Dahmer to kill and eat young men..
That Dahmer would have had no trouble attracting other gay men lent his story a terrible, terrifying poignancy.
None of this comes across with equal clarity in "Dahmer," which recalls "Boys Don't Cry" in muffling the larger implications of the fate of a real-life homosexual individual in American society.
Although stockier, Crew bore an uncanny resemblance to the killer; the new film's Jeffrey (Jeremy Renner) is not nearly as attractive as Dahmer, whom he resembles only slightly, and is depicted as a nerd.
Renner gives a focused, understated portrayal in a challenging role, but it's hard to imagine his Jeffrey attracting so many victims.
"Dahmer" moves with a slowness that's meant to be compelling but is largely merely glum. This becomes a hindrance to building suspense in telling a true story whose outcome is already well known (Dahmer was murdered at age 34 in 1994 by a fellow inmate while serving a 957-year prison sentence for 17 murders).
"Dahmer" is at its best at its beginning. It re-creates the notorious incident in which a drugged and injured Laotian youth (Dion Basco), 14, managed to escape from Dahmer's apartment.
Wandering the streets wearing only his undershorts and trying to find help, he is spotted by two young women who try to help him. Two police officers appear, followed by Dahmer, who smoothly convinces them that the kid is merely drunk. The women disagree strongly, but the dismissive officers view the incident as a gay lovers' spat.
Jacobson stages this horrifying sequence without any heavy-handed underlining. (Still, it would have said something of the world Dahmer lived in had Jacobson included that after returning the youth to Dahmer, the officers joked that they would have to go back to the police station to get deloused.)
The film continually shifts between past and present, not a bad idea, except that the flashbacks sketchily suggest that Dahmer's troubles began to surface when his upper-middle-class parents divorced when he was 18 when they clearly started much earlier. The film does not mention, for example, that he had a childhood history of cruelty to animals.
His mother, who remarried and moved to California, is a cipher here, and his father (Bruce Davison), who subsequently wrote a book trying to come to terms with his son's fate, comes across as insensitive, authoritarian and slow to comprehend that his son is seriously disturbed.
The heart of the film is like a two-character play (unfolding in an obvious set) involving Dahmer and one of his pickups, the slight, charismatic Rodney (Artel Kayaru). Warm, outgoing, direct, funny and endearing, Rodney is everything that the calculating, secretive Jeffrey is not. Rodney manages to find something appealing in Dahmer, even though he considers him weird.
The trouble is that Rodney comes across as the fictionalized character he is, and the culmination of this sequence is altogether too contrived. The incident in which one of Dahmer's victims escaped his clutches, thus bringing about his downfall, is not dramatized, and why Dahmer zeroed in mainly on Asian, Hispanic and African men remains unexplored.
Wisely, Jacobson depicts only three of Dahmer's victims, including his first, a high school wrestler (Matt Newton) he lures into his mother's home while she is away.
Jacobson is skilled with his small cast and mostly leaves to the imagination the outcome of a number of gruesome sequences. Ultimately, however, "Dahmer" suffers from a lack of clarity and audacity that a subject as monstrous and pathetic as Dahmer demands. Some bursts of energy and pitch-dark humor could have set off a more revealing portrait of this serial killer.
MPAA rating: R, for aberrant violence, sexuality, language and some drug use. Times guidelines: The film is unsuitable for children.
Jeremy Renner...Jeffrey Dahmer
Bruce Davison...Lionel Dahmer
A Peninsula Films production presentation. Writer-director David Jacobson. Producer Larry Rattner. Executive producers Timothy Swain and Leonard Shapiro. Cinematographer Chris Manley. Editor Bipsha Shom. Music Christina Agamanolis, Mariana and Willow Williamson. Costumes Dana Hart. Production designer Eric J. Larson. Art director Kelley Wright. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
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