Dahmer (2002)

FEBRUARY 13, 2011


I don’t think I’ve ever seen a full film on Jeffrey Dahmer, so I was a bit disappointed that Dahmer wasn’t a more typical serial killer film (i.e. one that depicted his “rise and fall”, for lack of a better phrase), because I wasn’t too familiar with the specifics of his case. Hell, I couldn’t even remember how he got caught, and the movie doesn’t even show THAT. However, it features a knockout performance by Jeremy Renner, and thus fans of his work in Hurt Locker and The Town should check it out ASAP.

Renner is in pretty much every frame of the film, and actually bears a strong resemblance to the real guy (particularly when he has those ugly ass glasses on), making it the rare occasion of an actor being perfect for the role. Sometimes the actor gives a great performance but doesn’t look a damn thing like the real guy (Corin Nemec as Bundy would be a good example), or the actor looks good but isn’t particularly suited for the material, but Renner brings the best of both worlds. And he’s fearless when it comes to the more lurid aspects of the case – at one point he rapes a guy that he’s drugged, and he frequently poses (sans most clothing) and “cuddles” with his victims.

And that’s a good thing, because otherwise this would be like a G rated account of one of the more twisted killers (only Gacy and Henry Lee Lucas were more vile, of the 20th century guys anyway). There’s only a single on-screen murder in the film, despite Dahmer’s 17 (at least) killings, and absolutely no mention of cannibalism or necrophilia. If you were to use this movie as your reference, Dahmer was a rapist who once killed a dude when he was in high school. Not that I need wall to wall violence or lurid subject matter, but Renner is so good it’s almost sort of a shame that they don’t explore these areas, if only to see how well Renner handles them.

His performance also helps the movie’s not-always-successful fractured timeline, which tells his current story in order while offering his flashbacks in reverse; something I didn’t quite pick up on until about halfway through the movie. Renner actually manages to look appropriately younger in these scenes, so if you were to watch the first and last flashbacks, you could see the difference in his depicted age (both of which are different than his modern day look). I honestly couldn’t figure out while watching the movie how old he was, and was astonished to learn that he was 30 years old during filming. But I’m not sure what purpose the reverse chronology served; I guess it allowed them to “build back” to his first murder, however that’s sort of an anticlimactic moment for a movie about a serial killer (especially when we’ve already seen that he kept the guy’s head in a box).

The scope could also have used some broadening as well. There’s a montage of sorts depicting why Dahmer was no longer allowed at a certain gay bar (because of all of the guys he drugged and raped), but all they do is smack him around and toss him out on the street. But when he is caught the bartender yells “That’s the guy!” so obviously what he’s been doing is known – wouldn’t they call the cops on him? In fact the police in the film are depicted as rather incompetent; one pulls him over for swerving around, smells alcohol on his breath, and simply lets him go (and accepts that the trash bags in his car were indeed lawn clippings). Others buy his story that his obviously drugged victim (who had managed to temporarily escape) was his boyfriend and that he simply had too much to drink. Now, apparently this one is true, but later he was arrested under similar circumstances – seems they could have shown that as well just to keep the Milwaukee police from looking completely inept.

Other elements are left rather vague, such as his parents’ divorce. It apparently played a big part in his demeanor, but the two characters don’t even share a scene together. His grandmother also just sort of disappears from the movie, and it wasn’t until I read his Wikipedia entry that I realized that the dog skull on a stick that he knocks to the ground at one point was something that he himself placed there. Again, it’s not that it’s a bad movie, but it’s not a great introduction to this guy. On that note, it DOES seemingly stick remarkably close to the facts – save for the names of victims and things of that nature, nothing seems made up. Many of the “slice of life” scenes are based in reality – his job at the chocolate factory, his theft of a mannequin, etc. And despite changing the name, they kept in some of the details about the guy who escaped, such as the fact that he still had handcuffs attached to one hand.

Had the Dahmer story already been made into several films (like Manson or Bundy), this would be an excellent “alternative” version of the story, focusing more on the man and putting a lot of detail into one particular chapter of his story instead of sticking to the serial killer bio template. However this is only the second, and the first is rather obscure (and was released only a year after his arrest, which suggests it was a quickie TV movie or something). So if you know nothing about him, I’d recommend reading the Wiki or True Crime Library entry first, and then watching this vague “gist” of his actions, savoring Renner’s terrific performance and admirable attention to detail without being somewhat left in the dark as to what certain things meant.

What say you?


  1. Dahmer was out of his freakin' mind, a shame that this isn't a more well rounded out depiction of his crimes. American Psycho reminds me a lot of the more horrid events in Dahmer's life, apart from the upper class setting of course.

  2. Hey man-- this seems like a goofy thing to comment on, but you mention Dahmer, Gacy, and Henry Lee Lucas as being the most vile of the serial killers of the 20th century. I just read a book about Albert Fish ("Deranged" by Harold Schecter) and would like to nominate him as the most seriously effed freak who ever LIVED...

  3. He only got caught because one victim got away to tell his story. He had one victim (14 year old boy) that got out into the streets naked and slurring from the drugs he gave him, and the police returned him to Dahmer's care because he said that the boy was his gay lover and they got into a fight and he ran out. As they walked out, they made fun of him for having a huge case of "the gay"

    Interesting fun fact: The boy they returned? His brother was molested but NOT killed by Dahmer years earlier.

    Great website, by the way:)

  4. my friend has a jeffrey dahmer portrait tattooed on her foot.

    thats all.

  5. I agree 100% that you have to have an understanding of his crimes to 'get' why this is a brilliant performance from Renner. It's unfortunate it took me a good portion of the beginning to realize the time shifts, but once you do I think they make the parallel timelines more interesting & telling. The whole film never stops being creepy and examining the pathology of a killer, but it does it a bizarrely gentle, humanizing way.


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