Jeremy Renner (Jeffrey Dahmer)
Bruce Davison (Lionel Dahmer)
Artel Kayaru (Rodney)
Matt Newton (Lance Bell)
Dion Basco (Khamtay)
Kate Williamson (Grandma)
mpaa rating: R
release: June 21, 2002
availability: VHS -
Whether you want it or not,
an up-close-and-personal look at the notorious Milwaukee serial
to be getting a lot of these serial-killer biopics lately.
Gein came out in 2001, and Matthew Bright's Ted
Bundy is on its way to video. They're all, I think, influenced
by John MacNaughton's unforgettable Henry: Portrait of a Serial
Killer -- at least, Ed Gein and now Dahmer
Renner, as Jeffrey Dahmer, live up to Michael Rooker's Henry
Lee Lucas and Steve Railsback's Ed Gein?
Very much so. Looking at times
uncannily like a young Kevin Spacey (and at others, particularly
at his most mischievous, like Malcolm McDowell circa Clockwork
Orange and O Lucky Man!), Renner gets inside Dahmer
and, upsettingly, takes us with him. He's as affecting as the
teenage Dahmer furtively beginning his path to damnation as he
is haunting as the older Dahmer beyond redemption (and knowing
it). At all times, though, he also makes Dahmer smart enough
to be hellishly manipulative -- he may look dazed and
passive, but the bastard thinks fast on his feet, the better
to hoodwink those around him (as well as his unsuspecting victims).
There's a chilling scene wherein he fools some cops into releasing
an escaped victim back into his custody (which really happened),
while two black women who see Dahmer for what he is protest in
vain. The scene speaks volumes about police racism (the victim
is Asian, too) without ever preaching.
has come in for some criticism because it barely shows the full
horror of what Dahmer did. True?
To some extent. Writer-director
David Jacobson most likely assumes we already know the ghastly
details, and wants to come at the story from a different angle.
Making it more difficult for himself, Jacobson doesn't indulge
in any blame-the-parents-for-the-psycho -- indeed, Dahmer's dad
(Bruce Davison) is depicted as a decent man frustrated by being
locked out of major parts of his son's life. Jacobson doesn't
dabble in much analysis, either: Dahmer is what he is. But what
he is, aside from the monster we know from the headlines, is
a human being. And that's not to excuse his actions remotely
-- we need to understand that people like Dahmer don't land here
from another planet; they are carbon-based life forms like the
rest of us, and simply holding them at arm's length as "monsters"
won't prevent the development (or aid the detection) of future
isn't a horror movie so much as a -- sorry -- psychodrama?
Right. There's scarcely any
bloodshed, and even the most grisly segment -- Dahmer slitting
open a victim's belly and fishing around inside -- is muted by
unfolding in a red-lighted bedroom. Jacobson doesn't want you
to recoil; he wants you to see the loathsome acts in terms of
the meaning they have for Dahmer. Perhaps also he wants you to
see them as antiseptically as Dahmer possibly forced himself
to see them.
point of soft-pedaling the acts of a monster?
Well, showing it in full gorehound
glory would be horribly insensitive to the friends and family
of Dahmer's real-life victims (even though the film admits upfront
that it's fictionalized) and carry the unpalatable side effect
of being a gross-out fun video for sickos. It should be said
that Jacobson humanizes the victims -- especially "Rodney"
(Artel Kayaru), the victim who got away -- so that the focus
of the film becomes Dahmer's highly damaged mode of interaction
with his prey. If you want a different take on Dahmer, there's
always 1993's The Secret Life -- Jeffrey Dahmer, written
by and starring Carl Crew, and released on video not long before
Dahmer was killed in prison.
worth a look?
Oh, definitely, if only for
Renner's complex performance, but also for Jacobson's artful
(yet never artsy) direction. It's a fine addition to the small
but growing subgenre of Serious Serial-Killer Movies. And as
long as humanity is fascinated by such people (i.e., forever),
there will be movies made about them, so they may as well be
soberly intentioned and brilliantly acted.