My Friend Dahmer Review

By | Friday, April 17, 2020 Leave a Comment
My Friend Dahmer poster
I sat down last night to watch the 2017 movie adaptation of My Friend Dahmer for the first time. It's of course based off Derf Backderf's 2012 graphic novel of the same name, and recounts Backderf's friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer in their last year or so of high school, with the story ending only a few hours before Dahmer commits his first murder.

The trick with a story like this is that the protagonist becomes an unrepentant serial killer and commits some incredibly heinous acts, so how do you convey him in such a way that the audience finds him relatable enough to be willing to follow his story, but not so relatable as to try to excuse his actions? In the case of the graphic novel, I think Derf was able to do that (at least partially) through his illustration style, but that's clearly not an option here. I believe Backderf himself has said that his approach to that was just to present the story as honestly and objectively as he could, but here, using live actors, there's a very fine line to be walked I think. The fact that it's a movie instead of a comic means that there are dozens of people lending their interpretations to the project, and injecting their own thoughts, ideas, and biases into it. Not just the director and the actors, but the screenwriter, the composer, the costume designers, the lightning technicians, the prop folks... essentially everybody listed in the end credits provided some level of input into this film.

The only thing I can think of that happened here, though, is that Backderf and writer/director/producer Marc Meyers were able to sufficiently emphasize that notion of objective honesty. This movie felt frighteningly like high school. No one was playing to broad stereotypes of "the jock" or "the nerd" or whatever. Despite my going to high school nearly a decade after Backderf and Dahmer, those school halls and classrooms were very familiar. The interactions of the students were ones I had. The banter, the attitudes, the angst... I recognized all of it. It all felt 100% authentic. Even down to the way the glasses didn't sit quite straight on lead actor Ross Lynch's face.

I think that's what really sold the film for me. It presented the utter mundanity of rural Northeast Ohio with sincere accuracy. It presented the utter mundanity of high school sincere accuracy. It presented the utter mundanity of a small town in the late 1970s with sincere accuracy. I felt all of it in a way that I don't get out of the original. Honestly, I usually have trouble connecting with Backderf's work. I like it well enough, but I don't really connect with it at an emotional level. Something with his illustration style, I think. But the movie crew seemed to go out of their way to make everything feel absolutely spot on.

I realize the film played a little more loosely with the story than the original graphic novel. The timeline's changed a bit, and there's some factual inaccuracies. Nothing huge, but enough that I wouldn't want to use the movie as a source for a school report on Dahmer. The changes are obviously to streamline the storytelling a bit, and given that it's not intended to be a strictly factual recounting of Dahmer's life, I'm okay with that. The spirit of the movie is true, even if some of the particular details are a tad off.

All told, I think it was an excellent film. Frankly, I found it improved on the original graphic novel and made for a compelling watch. I feel I understand the hellhole Dahmer came from better after having seen the movie, relative to how much I understood from the graphic novel. The movie is currently available for free on Amazon Prime, and probably available via other streaming platforms as well.
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