In the seventies artist Derf Backderf was at school in small town Ohio with one Jeffrey Dahmer. In 1991 that same Jeffrey Dahmer was revealed as a serial killer, when he was arrested and charged with the murder of 17 men, whose bodies he had variously dismembered, abused and even cannibalized.
How could Derf equate this man with the schoolboy he had once known? The idea that every famous person, including serial killers, was once an apparently normal school child, is an intriguing one. It haunted Backderf, who turned his memory of Dahmer into a graphic novel, on which Marc Meyers’ film is based.
This is not though a killer thriller film with lots of gore but an exploration of the teenager that Backderf remembered. So it’s no spoiler to reveal that the film stops just short of his first murder. As played by Ross Lynch Jeff is certainly an oddball and a bit of a loner, whose idea of fun is to dissolve in acid the bodies of dead animals he’s found in the road. He attracts the attention of Derf (Alex Wolff) and his buddies by amusing them with “doing a Dahmer” – pretending to have epileptic fits in public to alarm passers by – something his so-called friends, who mock him behind his back, find hilarious. He is a secret drinker, stealing booze from his father ((Dallas Roberts) and a stalker, spying on a local jogger, about whom he nurses secret, violent sexual fantasies.
There are also problems at home. Jeff’s mother Joyce (Anne Heche) has mental health problems, shouts a lot and makes no bones about the fact that she prefers his younger brother to him. His father fears that his elder son has inherited his nerdiness and obsessive nature from him. And the marriage is heading for the rocks.
Lynch is very good in the title role and with his rather girly haircut, big glasses, uncool short sleeved shirts and shambling walk has an uncanny resemblance to photos of the real Dahmer as a teen. He’s a bit spooky but he’s not however the most interesting of characters. In the episodic nature of the storytelling we see him doing all these various weird things but they produce little real dramatic tension. At one point his class is taken on a trip to Washington and Jeff rather cleverly manages to engineer a meeting for him and his mates with the vice president. When asked where they come from, one them describes their little town as “the middle of nowhere”.
And that is what the film is – the story of a rather dull nobody who came from the middle of nowhere and no-one would ever have heard of if he hadn’t become a serial killer. And as to what made him that – was it his parents, his genes, his high school experiences or what? – you’ll have to work out for yourself. The film gives no easy answers, probably because there aren’t any.