The time is the late nineteen-seventies and the place is this small Ohio town where one of the students is Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch), something of a misfit at his high school even as he enters his final year there. With only one person he could just about call a friend, and he is even more bullied than Dahmer is, he sets about losing himself in his interests in biology, which in practice means using the acid his chemist father brings him in his makeshift laboratory to strip the flesh from animal bones, animals he finds run over on the nearby roads. But what if he could make new friends? And what if they encouraged him to misbehave for their own amusement?
Would they be responsible for how Dahmer turned out? In case you were unware, this was a biopic of the events leading up to the subject's first murder, for in reality he was one of the United States' most prominent serial killers from 1978-91, and one of its most notorious to boot, with a trial that was heavily publicised as the public could not get enough of the gruesome details of his crimes. That fascination, as unhealthy as it may be, was the motive for this film, based on a comic book by one of those high school friends who was doing the encouraging - not for murder, but to act up in class and generally be a figure of weird fun for a bunch of pals who think they're smarter than they are.
What Dahmer does is pretend to be having fits or tics, inspired by an interior designer his mother (Anne Heche) employed who suffered a palsy, much like British kids of the early eighties were inspired to perform cold-hearted Joey Deacon (a physically disabled celebrity) impersonations for their own amusement. Now, no matter how cruel those kids were, damn few of them went on to be serial killers, so the question that arises here is the ever-present "Why?", and writer and director Marc Meyers found it a difficult one to answer. Overall, the impression was that mass murder motives were not a simple case of black or white, and no switch is thrown in the head of the menace.
We were certainly given clues you could dismiss or accept, such as that old cliché about cruelty to animals breeding a parallel lack of compassion for your fellow human, or maybe it was Dahmer's mother who triggered his horrendously bad decisions, she being mentally unbalanced and seemingly unaware that her son was going from psychologically fragile to dangerous to deadly as she acted obliviously to anyone's problems but her own. His father, on the other hand, was a weak presence, and though well-meaning was never going to offer Jeffrey the guidance he needed to get off the dreadful path he was taking. Then there were the bullies, who engender an atmosphere of intimidation, if not outright fear, making any kind of fitting in almost impossible once they had targeted you.
So, plenty to chew over there, if you'll pardon the expression, and Lynch gave a very decent account of his role's shift from awkward to creepy to, in the latter stages, threatening, another example of a Disney star seeking to break out of the wholesome bracket to forge a career in more adult-oriented works, not something that always takes in pop culture and can lead to some very unfortunate choices. This was definitely risky, but he was careful not to make Dahmer too sympathetic, as after all who would want to come away from this thinking, aw, poor guy, he was misunderstood. What you had instead was a rundown of many of the reasons behind the murderer's activities that pulled back from showing them, just as well for this was skating on thin ice of bad taste throughout and Meyers just about managed to justify the project. You eventually emerged wondering it was a miracle America doesn't produce many more serial killers if this is the social environment their teens grow up in. Music by Andrew Hollander.