Toying with the belief that Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer kept a low enough profile to have never raised suspicions about the macabre experiments he was conducting in his apartment, Chris James Thompson’s “Jeff” reopens the 20-year-old case to show a monster so unlikely, even jaded law-enforcement officers couldn’t comprehend his behavior. Through an unusual mix of staid re-enactments and talking-head interviews with three key observers — detective Pat Kennedy, lead pathologist Jeffrey Jentzen and neighbor Pamela Bass — this niche-interest docu is too bloodless for the uninitiated and too remedial for the familiar, but still artful in its own right.
Rather than rehash the more sensational aspects of the Dahmer case, Thompson promises a fresh perspective in which he takes existing information and shapes it into a new way of looking at the man. Though many close observers have been shocked to discover the double lives of sociopaths over the years, Dahmer is the criminal most commonly identified with having duped those around him into believing he was a nice guy.
He certainly comes off as polite, albeit uncomfortably stiff, in the film’s re-enactment scenes. As portrayed by Andrew Swant, Dahmer appears square and uptight, like an engineer at a dance party. The actor’s close-enough resemblance is defined primarily by his wire-frame eyeglasses and ’80s attire. (In his interview, Kennedy explains the signature striped shirt Dahmer wore to trial was actually loaned to him by the detective from among the clothes his son refused to wear.)
Rather than re-creating Dahmer’s crimes, which included attempts to turn his victims into zombie sex partners via amateur lobotomies, “Jeff” focuses on other oddball activities for which there would have been witnesses. In retrospect, every scene seems as though it should have aroused suspicion: Here was a gay white man living in a predominately black neighborhood who relied on public transportation, and yet still managed to bring home a mannequin, a 57-gallon blue plastic barrel, a lifetime supply of bleach and several victims without attracting the slightest attention.
Bass never questioned her neighbor’s comings and goings, and on occasion, consumed meat sandwiches offered to her by Dahmer. Such details come rather late in the short documentary, which takes its time in allowing the three interviewees to relate their stories. Kennedy and Bass have clearly polished their accounts through years of retelling, while the shockingly humorless Jentzen now teaches a course in which autopsies conducted during the Dahmer case figure prominently, which makes it odd that none of these narrators has worked out a version of events that grips the listener.
Director Thompson is no doubt partly responsible, serving each one up to regale his nonresponsive camera and then editing their testimony in a way that undercuts the momentum. “Jeff” feels as though it’s unfolding in slow motion, at the semi-somnambulistic pace of its half-lidded subject. Determined not to make the exploitation-movie version of events others have tried before, Thompson has deliberately swung to the far opposite extreme, offering up a cool-headed, almost ambivalent meditation on how Dahmer was able to fly below the radar.
The takeaway isn’t that “Jeff” — the title of which suggests a level of intimacy with the character the film never achieves — was so charming and slick that he fooled everyone, but rather, that his crimes were so extreme, no one could fathom a criminal capable of such atrocities. And yet, Thompson also includes footage from the local news at the time, which depicts a media all too eager to believe the worst.