Shot in only 23 days, David Jacobson’s Dahmer (he wrote and directed it) caused a lot of flak when it came out. Dahmer was shown as a human being, as opposed to a villain from a comic book. Because that’s what he was. A human being. No excuses. Stalin was a human being. And what does THAT mean about the rest of us? The people who complain about this do not realize (or do not care) that it’s far worse to show him as a human being rather than a Balrog from the deeps of Middle Earth. The implications are terrifying. I understand the victims’ families issues here, but we’re talking about art. Dahmer is not glorified here and his victims are not demonized (as they often were, by the cops at the time, and the press). Excuses are not made for him, we are not asked to defend him, but he is shown in a realistic light. Here is what happened.
Dahmer does not attempt to explain it all away, because honestly it can’t be. However: the fact that Dahmer obviously had feelings about what he did, he spoke them very clearly afterwards, that he knew it was bad (he was meticulous in covering it up), and yet still he refused to suppress his actions based on those feelings that it was wrong (the definition of morality, in my opinion) is interesting. It makes him cinematic. Watchable. Even likeable at times. This is the reality of Dahmer. Oh well. Art’s complicated. You want black and white go to Jesus Camp; don’t go to the movies. People seem to feel certain things shouldn’t be shown at all because perhaps it would seem like the actions in the film were being condoned. This attitude would wipe out most works of art that I find relevant, exciting, challenging, and important (bye bye Crime and Punishment!), so I’ll leave all that behind so we can move on and talk about the movie.
Dahmer was no dummy. He experimented, he knew what he needed (as horrible as it was), and so calculated and planned to get that need met. You know, I need good friends, intellectual stimulation, and the love of a good man. Dahmer needed to create his own sex zombies. Whatever floats your boat, Jeff. But in terms of getting his needs met: There was something charming about him to get these guys to come with him back to his apartment. People in the gay community at the time referred to him as a “honey”. Certainly not a catch, like the writhing six-pack-ab boys in tank tops at the nightclubs, the ones Dahmer stalked, but he wasn’t a pariah. A friend of a friend of mine actually went on a couple dates with Dahmer. He was nice, and kind of boring, this person said.
Later on, when it was discovered that he had been slipping sleeping pills into boys’s drinks and raping them in downstairs rooms at the bar, word got out pretty quick – but before that, he didn’t make waves. He operated by stealth. He had a harmless persona. He was a cunning and very organized killer (until the end). He came off as completely unthreatening, almost a beaten-dog, with a shy smile, and he had boyish good looks. He may have been socially awkward, but he didn’t seem frightening or dangerous. It’s hard to see that now, because we only view him through the filter of his actions, but if you can picture that you didn’t know what he had done, and you saw a shy kind of sweet guy buying you a drink … it’s a very effective ploy. While “cunning” has connotations of the Shylock-sterotype, the character rubbing his hands together and cackling with glee … that kind of characterization is not what Jacobson is after here, thank God. Dahmer was one of God’s lonely people, to paraphrase, Travis Bickle, another cinematic psychopath. The two performances have a lot in common. There’s one brilliant shot in Taxi Driver where Travis calls up Betsy (played by Cybill Shepherd) to ask her out for another date, after their disastrous first date where he takes her to a porn movie. The camera is in a hallway, and we see Travis on the payphone. As the conversation goes down, and you can tell, by Travis’s responses, that she is turning him down for a second date, the camera slowly backs up and then – amazingly – goes around the corner so we can’t even see Travis anymore. Oh, Marty, I love you so. The moment is so painful, and the camera move is so specific – it is objective yet subjective as well. To me, it IS the eye of God in that moment. God is useless in the world of Taxi Driver, yet very much present, and in that moment, He cannot bear to even look at Travis during the moment of rejection. And yet the camera also, in that moment, operates in a totally subjective way: it IS Travis, and in that moment, he completely detaches from himself – the pain is too great – he can’t be in the moment, he has to back away from himself and go around the corner. Granted, Bickle is a fictional character, while Dahmer is real, but the psychological portrait is quite similar, and why Bickle resonates to such an intense degree. He explains so much. And yet he also explains nothing.
That very lack of explanation, which makes Bickle so terrifying, is what makes Dahmer such an unbalancing experience. The film has some composite characters, but most of it is based on either trial testimony or what Dahmer himself said in interviews (hitting the tree with the baseball bat, for example, or how he cried after he killed his first victim when he was a teenager – he said it was the last time he ever cried).
The film has a dreamy pace to it, which also may have been jarring when it first came out, to audiences expecting action. I, for one, was riveted by it, and chilled. There isn’t much killing in this movie. There is only one scene of explicit gore, and it is a very specific moment in Dahmer’s life – his first killing – which shows him reaching the point of no return. In a way, Dahmer resists, totally, the titillation of a horror-thriller by concentrating solely on the psychology of a totally isolated human being. It would be far far worse to have slo-mo scenes reveling in Dahmer’s killing, which would, by default, become sensationalistic. This is just my view, obviously not shared by everyone, but I think the film is strong because it resists easy answers. Like Steinbeck’s Cathy in East of Eden, Dahmer is a monster. Born to human parents. He cannot feel things for other people. He doesn’t have it in him. His parents now must grapple with this fact, and they are, but he split off, at a very young age. Trauma of his parents’ divorce? Sure, probably. But plenty of children go through a divorce and don’t become Jeffrey Dahmer. Any attempt at explanation would be puerile, in my opinion. Showing him as a human being is not making excuses for him. It is the reality.
Despite the fact that it was nominated for a couple of Independent Spirit awards (Jacobson as director, and Renner as Best Actor), it went to video pretty quick. I was fortunate enough to see it when it was out (I adore serial killers), and my main response was in regards to Renner. WHO. IS. THAT. I didn’t track him down or follow him (which is strange, considering my track record), but I never forgot him, and the second I started hearing about Hurt Locker, and I saw his face in the promos, I knew exactly who it was. That’s Jeffrey Dahmer. He gives an extraordinary performance.
He reminds me so much of Peter Lorre in M, one of the best portrayals of an anti-social criminal personality that I can think of.
Even Renner’s face, boyish, babyish even, with big eyes, and baby fat around the edges, calls to mind Lorre. His very looks are disarming, similar to, oh, Ted Bundy, although Bundy was more of a chameleon, and could adapt freakily to any situation. Dahmer has the blunt-eyed flat-affect face of the classic psychopath, and Renner captures that exquisitely.
There are moments when things don’t go exactly as he wants them to go, and you can see his eyes, flat-lidded, like a reptile, flit away for a second, trying to process this new information, and all you can see is a coiled predator who needs to be in control at every moment. He doesn’t seem ferocious when things don’t go his way. He seems more baffled, and uncomfortable. When he does turn violent, it is swift, sudden, and horrifying. Because nothing has prepared you for it up until that point (besides your preconceived notions of the character, which gives the film a wonderful tension).
When I first saw the film, I remember wondering how old Jeremy Renner was. When he needs to be 18, you would never believe he was anything else. When he needs to be older, that is completely believable as well. The facial hair changes slightly, the glasses, the haircut, but it almost seems as though the contours of his face actually alter, which is a startling accomplishment in a film shot in only 23 days, and not at all in sequence. This was my first glimpse at the master that Renner is, and the industry is filled with people such as Renner, and 99% of them are NEVER honored with an Oscar nomination. I am always on the lookout for people doing good gritty work, and the scope of the accomplishment here, in Dahmer, made me sit up straight in my chair. It had a low budget (which shows, from time to time), and a compressed shooting schedule. Renner had to be totally in charge of his own transformation, from day to day (“Today I’m playing 17 year old Dahmer, and tomorrow I’m playing Dahmer the day before he’s busted”) – and he is. Wardrobe certainly helps, but that’s only half the battle. The look in his eyes hardens, and yet also dulls, as he gets further and further into his obsessions. It is a compulsion (as Dahmer said again and again). He doesn’t question it. Does a lion question tackling that gazelle? Dahmer was acting according to his own nature, which is the most frightening thing of all.
Davidson and his cinematographer, Chris Manley, knew, going in, that they would not have a lot of time to create their mood/light/set. They did a ton of research beforehand, and came up with a plan for shooting. Dahmer does not play out sequentially, you leap around in time, and so Davidson and Manley came up with a color palette to signify the different times. It’s not quite as obvious as the schematics of Traffic, where each section looks completely different from all the others, telling you where you are, but it is similar. The earlier scenes, of Jeffrey’s teenage years (with a wonderful performance by Bruce Davison as Jeffrey’s father – more thoughts on Davison here) have a soft contrast, with lots of natural light. There are outdoor scenes, daylight scenes. There is a grain to the film in the earlier years, giving it more of a documentary home-movie feel. The later scenes, showing Dahmer’s exploits in the gay bar scene in Milwaukee, become dark, curtains drawn, no daylight or natural light, rooms saturated with color, deep reds and browns and blacks, with soft pools of light picking up the sides of Dahmer’s face, like a Caravaggio.
The earlier scenes feel real, not editorial. The camera is objective. Detached. It keeps its distance from Jeffrey, more often than not, including a scene showing Jeffrey walking down a long hallway to go to a therapists’ office (at his father’s insistence), which calls to mind Scorsese’s use of the hallway and the distant camera in Taxi Driver that I mentioned before. This is all very specific thought-out stuff, which clearly needed to be in place for such a short shoot.
Dahmer’s apartment, the infamous apartment, appears to take on different characteristics, depending on Dahmer’s emotional state. The first time we see it, it’s filmed naturalistically, and by the end, it’s just a gleaming-red nighttime interior space, with blocks of color showing the doorways to other rooms, and shadows encroaching upon all. Subjective and objective eye going on here. It works on the viewer subconsciously. By the end, Dahmer’s apartment seems claustrophobic, the cameras are in close on his face, his victim’s face, you get no sense of the surrounding space, and where there would be a way out.
All of this is captured visually. Very strong work done here by Manley, and the production design and lighting design.
It’s Renner’s work I most remember, and I am glad to know that this movie, which so quickly disappeared back in the day, is now experiencing a resurgence, due to things like Netflix and, of course, Renner’s Oscar nomination.
I have more to say about Renner. Working on something big. But for now, some screen grabs from Dahmer that seem to capture what I’m talking about, both in terms of the look of the film, and his tremendously mold-able appearance. (He’s in charge of that molding, by the way. This is not a matter of slapping on a mustache and padding your belly. Humphrey Bogart said good acting is always “six feet back in the eyes”. That’s the kind of transformation I am talking about here – not just compared to Renner’s other roles, but within the film Dahmer itself.)
A psychological portrait of an antisocial personality, someone without the ability to feel empathy, or even understand what the purpose of something like empathy is, Renner left an indelible impression.