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By Tim Merrill | June 20, 2002

By no means could “Dahmer” be called an overly pleasant moviegoing experience. Yet writer-director David Jacobson manages to turn what might have been a ghoulish wallow into a fascinating character portrait. Aided enormously by Jeremy Renner, his astonishing lead actor, Jacobson has created something we haven’t seen since “The Silence of the Lambs”: a sensitive, non-exploitative serial killer movie.
A revolting introductory image of chocolate syrup oozing into a vat would seem to point the way to a different, more easily black-comic tone. Patsy Cline’s “Just Out of Reach” plays on the soundtrack. Irony, we think: little does everyone know that people are food to Jeffrey Dahmer, right? He works in a chocolate factory, makes his living stamping out delicious little Santas. Showing a new co-worker the ropes, Dahmer even warns him about a particularly dangerous piece of machinery: “That’ll eat you up.” We’re in David Lynch land, right?
Not for long. By the time Dahmer is seen wandering into a clothing store, checking out the male mannequins, we feel as if we’re watching a documentary, peering just over Dahmer’s shoulder as he sweet-talks clueless prettyboy Khamtay (Dion Basco) out of the store and into his apartment (a new pair of sneakers is the lure). One drugged drink and a few Polaroids later, Dahmer is bent over Khamtay, methodically drilling a single tiny hole into his skull.
Not only does Khamtay not die; he actually manages to escape. Dahmer convinces the police officers who appear at his doorstep that the zombified Khamtay is just a bit drunk, took off after a little spat, everything is under control now. Incredibly, Milwaukee’s Finest actually buy Dahmer’s story, and off they go.
Well, given that this really happened, we all know what the cops missed that night: the contents of Dahmer’s freezer, namely, not to mention the barrel of acid he had in a back room.
However, while “Dahmer” has many more such suspenseful close calls in store, Jacobson is more interested in exploring the particulars of this uniquely twisted man’s personality,
and he does a hell of a riveting job.
While bad parenting could certainly be called a factor in the infamous cases of Ed Gein and Ted Bundy, how to account for the roots of Dahmer’s lunacy? Father Lionel (played in well-woven flashbacks by the always reliable Bruce Davison) seems a decent enough guy. In one extended dramatic scene from earlier in their lives, Lionel at first gently, but with mounting frustration, presses young Jeffrey to disclose the contents of a head-sized wooden box – never suspecting that it does, of course, contain a head. At no point does Lionel cross any sort of line with Jeffrey, though – the beauty of the scene is that it so makes you wish he had. No child abuser or religious maniac he, Lionel may have played a part in his son’s burgeoning reign of terror simply by having been so caring, so patient with him. It is to Davison’s and the film’s credit that, on reflection, you truly hurt for Lionel Dahmer. The poor man.
Impressive as the film’s many flashback sequences are, Jacobson also creates unbearable tension with the introduction of a sweet, needy black kid named Rodney, who is brought to heartbreaking life by Artel Kayaru. Like Dahmer, Rodney is really just looking for a friend. But Rodney has the bad luck to allow himself to be picked up, drugged and handcuffed over the course of one seemingly interminable evening. Kayaru – along with Renner, a young actor to watch – never allows Rodney to come off as simply stupid for putting so much trust in Dahmer, for believing that he can’t possibly mean him any harm. When Rodney finally does escape once and for all, finally does direct the cops to Apartment 213 – and this time they get the goods, do they ever – it’s more out of hurt feelings than anger. Rodney simply wanted someone to treat him right, and he deserved better. But at least he made it out of Dahmer’s charnel house alive, unlike so many other trusting young men. Renner and Kayaru do magnificent work together, and one hopes that the Independent Spirit Awards committee, at least, will remember them come awards season next year.
While sparing us the gory details is certainly appreciated, it’s in his exquisite handling of Rodney’s aching humanity that Jacobson validates his own intentions. Finally, a serial killer tale that treats the victims with as much respect as the “hero.” You truly feel for Rodney, fear for him, and it’s a welcome anti-anticlimax when he breaks free of his tormentor at last. In more ways than one, Rodney is truly “the one that got away.” During the excruciating final moments, when Dahmer realizes that Rodney has got his number once and for all, Renner’s bland yet expressive face speaks volumes: “Fair enough, you got me.” The control slips from Dahmer’s grasp, the cops are soon to discover everything, and all that’s left is relief that the long nightmare is over.
Getting inside the mind of a murderer is no easy task; most serial killer movies don’t even attempt it, preferring instead to revel in sensational nastiness. The degree to which “Dahmer” succeeds in making us understand an evil yet pathetic human monster is almost unprecedented. This is strong, serious stuff – and very likely a classic of the genre.

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