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DAHMER (director/writer: David Jacobson; screenwriter: David Birke (uncredited)/from Lionel Dahmer’s 1994 book “A Father’s Story”; cinematographer: Chris Manley; editor: Bipasha Shom; music: Christina Agamanolis/Marianna Bernoski/Willow Williamson; cast: Jeremy Renner (Jeffrey Dahmer), Bruce Davison (Lionel Dahmer), Artel Kayaru (Rodney), Matt Newton (Lance Bell), Dion Basco (Khamtay), Kate Williamson (Grandma); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Larry Rattner; Peninsula Films; 2002)
“It’s not that “Dahmer” was a bad film, which it certainly wasn’t, but it was a pointless one that was more unsettling than informative or penetrating.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

David Jacobson’s docudrama “Dahmer” reenacts in dramatic form some incidents in the life of the psychopathic Jeffrey Dahmer (Renner), who was the infamous Milwaukee gruesome serial killer the newspapers had a field day with because of his penchant for dismembering his victims’ masculine genitalia and consuming them. Dahmer should have been the poster boy for the death penalty. Instead, justice came to him in the hands of another prisoner. Dahmer was serving a life sentence (sentenced to over a thousand years) for murdering 17 males of various races, when the 34-year-old was killed in prison two years after his 1992 conviction. The film to its credit does not sensationalize the gore, in fact it’s relatively bloodless for a serial killer flick. In a tasteful art-house fashion it arduously attempts to make inroads into Dahmer’s sick mind, as the film traces in flashback some of his crimes including his first murder victim when he was 18 and was still living in his parents’ house. Dahmer resorts to murder after inviting a high school wrestler (Matt Newton) over to smoke pot while his folks are on vacation.

Why the sullen and droll Dahmer can’t accept anyone’s friendship or help from his folks, is never ascertained. To know what goes on inside his head is a thankless task, even though the film lets us hear his inner thoughts. Jacobson pictures him as an ordinary boy-next-door type who blends into the crowd, but for some inexplicable reason he is programmed to go off the deep end and take his alienation and inner anger out on others. In one scene when he’s older and has his rape vic in his apartment, the taciturn assembly line worker in a chocolate factory describes himself in the following way — “I’m a pervert, exhibitionist, masturbator, and killer.”

Why Dahmer must kill and mutilate is impossible to say–even after viewing the film and seeing how the troubled young man related to his family and functioned at work. Dahmer simply fell through the cracks of the system because no one could see how really demented and dangerous he was, as there seems to be no one to blame. That’s what makes this Dahmer story real scary as a comment on society more so than as a horror/crime story, as one wonders how many others are like him and how in the world can you deal with them. After Dahmer was apprehended, his family and acquaintances never suspected he was capable of committing such sickening destructive acts. If that’s truly the case, then it’s doubtful if anyone could have helped since he was reluctant to talk about himself.

The saddest murder, is the one that could have and should have been averted; it is one that is documented as actually happening much like it was presented. It’s the torturous killing of a 14-year-old Laotian youth (Dion Basco) whom Dahmer lures to his apartment after buying him sneakers. Dahmer drugs his drinks and leaves him alone while he goes out shopping, but the drugged Asian ventures out to the street dressed only in his underwear and there he’s approached by two young black women who try to help recognizing he’s in trouble. But the police refuse to believe Laotian youth is in danger and return him to the seemingly innocent looking Dahmer who returns from shopping and wraps his coat around him. They believe it’s merely a gay lovers’ spat and the Asian is only drunk.

The film wastes a lot of time showing Dahmer seducing in a mean-spirited way the lonely and slenderly built African-American, Rodney (Kayaru), someone he met in a knife store and lured to his house by offering him drinks and companionship. Everything about these two getting it on smacked of fiction and forced dramatics, including Rodney’s flamboyant dance with a skeleton. It was hard to believe the street savvy Rodney would return to Dahmer’s apartment after being handcuffed and insulted, at least the film wasn’t able to show why he returned.

The most involving scene was the one with Dahmer’s now divorced, overbearing, authoritarian figure dad, Lionel (Bruce Davison), who visits his room in his grandma’s Wisconsin house after she tells him that his son weirdly keeps a store mannequin in the closet (the closet is Dahmer never comes out of, as the theory for his violence and inability to accept love is presented as a reaction to his being all bottled up inside without getting things off his chest). The tension between father and son builds to a crescendo when dad discovers his old chemistry box in the closet and wants it opened to get a memento he left there from his youth in a secret compartment. But Dahmer has a severed head wrapped in a plastic bag stored there and fights his father’s request off. It’s easy to see how alike in their temperament are father and son. Through Davison’s nuanced performance, you can see how it runs in the family genes the determination to get one’s way. What was also good about this scene, was that even though the two had their differences and the father was shown to be insensitive and unaware of how great his son’s psychological problems were, it would not be fair to blame the father for what went so terribly wrong with his son. In another scene, the father takes him to therapy and quietly tells him to give it a chance. We are not talking about a parent who is totally deaf and blind to his son’s problems, but one who like many others caught in that situation doesn’t know where to turn to or what to do.

As the film continually moves from the past to the present and covers only three of the murders, there are many repetitive scenes of Dahmer luring his victims by offering them drinks; such as, the one in a gay disco bar where he laces with drugs the drinks he buys for his vics and then rapes them nearby when he drags their unconscious bodies away from the bar. As the film highlighted his life, it somehow never got around to what motivated him to eat and have sex with the young men victims when they were corpses, nor did it show him in his cannibalism mode actually eating the corpses. I learned more about Dahmer from reading the newspapers at the time, than I did from this film. I would have expected more clarity about Dahmer’s homophobia, as I was not quite satisfied to have him simply pictured as this monstrous nerd who has the ability to be so appealing that he can have his potential victims so unwary that they would let their guard down despite his weird behavior and just follow him willingly into his apartment for a drink or a smoke. The film seemed to be desperate to find an excuse for what Dahmer did but couldn’t since it never got to his psyche, and therefore most of Dahmer’s story seemed futile — a rehash of old news without anything new to tell.

It’s not that “Dahmer” was a bad film, which it certainly wasn’t, but it was a pointless one that was more unsettling than informative or probing. As you would expect he was not a pleasant character, and though his part was well-acted in an understated manner by Jeremy Renner — his characterization still was unable to shed any light on who he was and why he did such horrible things. We only see one side of him: his egotism, his arrogance, his gloomy outlook on life and his urge to take things by force. Despite this attempt by writer/director Jacobson to humanize and show how vulnerable he was, Dahmer still appears as a monster we know little about. Perhaps this is the only way it could be, and that those whose agenda is to argue against the death penalty often cite as one of the reasons that they prefer jail time to death is so they could study the criminal. But no one studied Dahmer in prison, or if they did — they came up empty and have no more to say about him than what the newspapers gathered in their headline feeding frenzies.

REVIEWED ON 9/17/2002 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”