It’s understandable that one might feel some trepidation about a film with this title; since the goriness of serial-killer tales has gotten so far out of hand of late (just think of “Hannibal,” for instance), it’s easy to imagine how disgusting a story about the Milwaukee murderer, who dismembered his victims and even consumed parts of them, might be. Skipping “Dahmer” would, however, be a mistake. Eschewing the opportunity to repulse us with graphic mayhem and sexual perversion, writer-director David Jacobson uses suggestion and atmosphere to paint a subtly creepy, gently disturbing portrait of a genuinely disturbed man–one that doesn’t hide the monstrousness of his crimes and resists the inclination to offer facile rationales for them, but that, while hardly sympathetic, isn’t merely accusatory either. Working off Lionel Dahmer’s 1994 book “A Father’s Story,” Jacobson has managed to fashion what might have seemed impossible: an engrossing, imaginative, provocative and startlingly evocative treatment of a subject that seemed destined to be fodder for the crudest sort of exploitation. The point of the exercise might not be apparent, but its artistry certainly is.
“Dahmer” is in no sense a conventional, TV-movie sort of biography. It uses constant shifts in chronology and dreamlike approximations of episodes in the killer’s life to build an almost impressionistic vision of his background and personality. The picture begins with a glimpse of Dahmer (a restrained, beautifully controlled Jeremy Renner), late in his career, at work in a chocolate factory, instructing a new hire in the running of a candy-wrapping machine (“Be careful, it will eat you up,” he warns in a line that’s one of the script’s rare instances of lurid irony). It then proceeds to portray one of his most notorious crimes–the slow killing and torture of a young Asian man here called Khamtay (Dion Brasco), whom he’s lured to his sparsely- furnished apartment; what makes the episode so horrible is that–true to the historical record–the drugged Khamtay briefly escapes, only to be returned to Dahmer’s control by police, who think him a drunken gay lover. After a brief interruption as the killer is summoned by his grandmother (Kate Williamson) to rid her house of a bird that’s gotten trapped in her kitchen, the film shows, in flashback, a few episodes from Dahmer’s past: confrontations with his father (Bruce Davison) over his peculiar habits, his rape of a series of patrons at a gay bar, and–most harrowingly–his first murder, the sudden, spontaneous slaying of a high school wrestler (Matt Newton) whom he’d invited home in his parents’ absence to smoke pot. These are interspersed with scenes showing his attempted seduction of a gangly black man named Rodney (Artel Kayaru) in the “present.”
Jacobson’s treatment of all this is beautifully gauged, combining starkness with a quietly haunting quality that’s accentuated by the careful compositions and atmospheric, elegant cinematography effected on a very low budget by Chris Manley. Sensationalism is studiously avoided; all the violence is depicted either off-screen or in deep shadow, and the sole instance in which much blood appears comes in the aftermath of a killing–and is all the more shocking for its rarity. The performances are uniformly excellent, topped by Renner’s stunningly understated turn and Davison’s nicely shaded one. Basco deserves special credit for successfully tackling a role that requires him to be almost inert while still making the audience care about his fate. Only Kayaru fails to meet the fine ensemble standard, coming across as a bit too flamboyant.
There’s a remarkable assurance and sense of control to Jacobson’s work in “Dahmer.” By refusing to offer pat psychological explanations or exploitative titillation and gore and adopting a moody, restrained “Scenes from a Life” approach instead, he’s made a film that will linger in the memory far longer than something more explicit and insensitive would have done. “Dahmer” proves that a serial-killer art movie is not a contradiction in terms.