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Arts & Culture » Movies

Dahmer Dearest

by Erin Blackwell

Serial killers are currently at risk of being displaced in our nightmares by mass shooters, whose work is more public and performative, with a cumulative scare index boosted by the spread of panic through multiple warm-blooded mammals. Is it scarier being killed with a group of your friends, or all by your lonesome? In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre at Mandalay Bay, the notion of a plodding serial killer carefully selecting each singular victim seems almost quaint. The mood is right, in other words, for an intimate look at one of our greatest gay predators in "My Friend Dahmer," opening Friday at the Roxie Theater.

The film is based on the 220-page graphic novel of the same name by Derf Backderf, who was Dahmer's classmate in Ohio from seventh grade to their high school graduation in 1978, the year of the first murder. Backderf, known for his 22-year Cleveland-based syndicated comic "The City," brings a fever-dream draftsmanship to his memories of an angst-ridden outcast who'd chug a six-pack before the start of a school day. Backderf's role in this true story is ironic friend, enabler, and fellow subversive. His highly stylized and intensely felt depiction of a desperately depressed young Dahmer arouses fear and pity.

Young Jeffrey was obsessed with road kill, which he collected and subjected to chemical baths that dissolved flesh and revealed bones. His father, an analytic chemist, encouraged his son in these gruesome, borderline scientific exercises. Techniques gained from these early experiments were later applied to the corpses of the 17 young men who met their death at his hands. The lumpy liquid could be flushed down the toilet, while the telltale bones were broken into bits and scattered in the backyard. Eventually, he would preserve human specimens in jars and his infamous refrigerator, where police discovered them in 1991.

But all these spine-tingling, tabloid-selling necrophiliac obsessions are merely potential when we meet our anti-hero on a schoolbus, a gorgeous man-child chafing at the oppressive discipline imposed on his burgeoning manhood. For 102 minutes we watch a melancholy Jeffrey listlessly endure a history class, lunch in the school cafeteria, parental arguments in the kitchen, his father's punitive guidance, his mother's nonsensical advice, their divorce, and a hollow-hearted prom. His only moments of shared human pleasure are anarchic: for the amusement of Backderf and his buddies, he stages fake epileptic attacks at school and in the mall.

Ross Lynch, 21, has the perfectly symmetrical, carefully sculpted features, wide-set eyes, and thick blond hair to play young Jeffrey. He's got the oversized 70s wire-frames, tight nylon shirts, bell-bottom jeans, and chukka boots. He hunches well-developed shoulders so his arms hang in front of his thighs like an awkward ape, while his deadly deadpan, holding all passion in reserve, is relieved only by swiveling eyes scoping out the minefield of his catastrophic adolescence. His Dahmer teeters on the brink of parody only because everyone else behaves like they're in a situation comedy.

Writer-director Marc Meyers, in reverently adapting the dread-filled visual source material, opted for a blandly comic, casual realism with faithful period details like the shiny new crimson VW bug Jeffrey uses to snag an unwary hitchhiker in the final shot. Mom's mental problems are glossed as eccentricity; skittish Anne Heche and slack-jawed Dallas Roberts have the gravitas of Dennis the Menace's parents. This superficial treatment of an American tragedy may pass as a condemnation of superficial American culture, but the opportunity to make a film as rivetingly creepy-compassionate as the comic has been blown.

Scene from director Marc Meyers' "My Friend Dahmer."

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