Sunday, March 7, 2010


Probably due to the fact that Jeremy Renner is getting alot of attention these days (and an Oscar nom) for the disappointing 'The Hurt Locker,' I was craving rewatching one of my favorite films, 'Dahmer' (2002). Of course the Academy would never recognize a film like 'Dahmer' but I think Renner's nuanced performance as the disturbed yet alluring serial killer was much more deserving of an Oscar nomination. At least he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
Late last night I satiated my craving and rewatched the film.

Serious, somber and sensitive, 'Dahmer' is not a stereotypical sensationalist bio pic. The opening credit montage of a chocolate factory assembly line eerily set to Patsy Cline's "just out of reach" immediately signals that this is not going to be the Jeffrey Dahmer movie viewers are anticipating even though the action then meticulously moves to Dahmer luring a victim from a department store back to his apartment where he proceeds to perform a partial lobotomy on the boy with a power drill.
Despite atrocious acts like the aforementioned lobotomy, director and writer David Jacobson refuses to demonize the tortured Dahmer. I think it makes people feel better to distance themselves from others who commit abhorrent acts by referring to them as "monsters." By doing so, people draw a clear line separating themselves from a murderer. It is true that Jeffrey Dahmer did monstrous things but it is ignorant to think that he was somehow less human or all that different from you and me. Dahmer was someone's son and someone's neighbour, not a "monster."
A moralistic perspective on Dahmer's actions is refused by director Jacobson. Instead, a coolly detached, restrained perspective aided by precise, sometimes stark camerawork by Chris Manley and editing by Bipasha Shom, show without telling. Events, including the murder and dismemberment of Dahmer's first victim, are presented in a manner that is startlingly matter-of-fact, stripped naked of a damning or condemning voice. This moral ambiguity is something I appreciate as it lets the viewer determine things on their own, reach their own conclusions and feel their own emotions without heavy handed guidance.
Jacobson also refuses to play the silly textbook game of connect the ( behavioral/psychological) dots from childhood to adulthood to somehow explain why Dahmer became one of America's grisliest mass murderers. Many horror films about killers, Rob Zombie's reworking of 'Halloween' (2007) and even the excellent 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer' (1986) for examples, paint simple pictures of a troubled, abused boy becoming a troubled, abusing (and killing) man. But realistically, things are not always so simple. The timeline of 'Dahmer' slides back and forth between the present and snippets of Jeffrey's adolescence. Sure his father is revealed to have been slightly oppressive and humiliating and his parents divorced, but Dahmer was not forced to dress in women's clothing and watch his mother fuck strange men who later molested him (as in 'Henry'). 'Dahmer' demonstrates that sometimes there are no clear, formulaic reasons for why we do the things we do, making the film all the more chilling.
Jacobson's direction and Jeremy Renner's portrayal allow viewers to not only sympathize but empathize with the dissolute Dahmer and I fully agree with the opening sentence of Ed Halter's insightful 2002 review of the film in The Village Voice; "The only gay movie protagonist in recent years whom I've identified with is [this] titular antihero..." Renner's nerdy yet attractive Dahmer is awkwardly shy and his graceless attempts at human connection feel squeamishly close to home for me, especially in a houseparty scene. When Jeffrey's parents go on vacation, he throws a houseparty where he is ignored and sits drinking alone as his peers dance and interact around him. After getting up and wandering out of the room like a ghost, Jeffrey hears a heterosexual couple fucking in a bedroom. With sad yearning, he pushes open the door and briefly watches the couple going at it, connecting in a way he ferociously desires but can't seem to manage. Later, in a gay bar, the houseparty scene is echoed when Dahmer is depicted as an alienated outcast, nervously navigating the fringes as men wearing tight t-shirts dance around him- another all too familiar scene. Gay life is unflatteringly rendered in 'Dahmer' as one that "exploits deep wells of loneliness" (Halter) and this is something else I connect and agree with.
Aside from a heartbreakingly beautiful scene at the end where a metaphor for Damher's desperate desire to connect, to get at another person's heart, is literalized by him slicing open a victim's chest and reaching his arm inside; the violence in the film is kept off screen and the gore kept to a minimum. Strangely, and to the film's detriment, Dahmer's real life cannibalism is left out. The large vat Dahmer used to store the corpses of his victims near his bed in real life is also omitted from the film. However, I think this was a good choice because in the film, Dahmer instead keeps the corpses in his bed, providing for some suspenseful and uncomfortable scenes.
'Dahmer' does not show the capture and imprisonment of Jeffrey, or his eventual murder at the hands of another inmate. In line with the film's austerity, seriousness and intelligence, 'Dahmer' concludes with a series of stark, mostly static shots depicting Dahmer's isolation and disconnection as he appears solitary in the frame. Instead of seeking help at a local AA meeting, he turns his back to the camera and the audience, walking off into a forest, symbolizing how Dahmer turned his back on society, unable to reach out or resist the urges within.

'Dahmer' suffered from poor marketing as it was pushed as a regular, mainstream horror movie (demonstrated in the stupid official trailer that I refuse to post) when it should have played the festival circuit.
Sidenote- the minimal score to the film is creepy and perfect. As are the soundtrack choices. Below are some of the tracks used in the film:

Patsy Cline- just out of reach (used in the opening credits)

Freddy Cannon- Tallahassee Lassie (used in a scene where one of Dahmer's victims dances drunk in Dahmer's apartment before he is attacked)

Gladys Knight and the Pips- with every beat of my heart

The End

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