Rethinking the serial killer movie in every respect, David Jacobson presents a powerfully cool visualization of a gruesome life in “Dahmer.” By de-dramatizing the actions of Jeffrey Dahmer, America’s most ghoulish mass murderer, and by refusing to serve up easy psychological motivations or any standard exploiter devices, Jacobson produces a remarkably creepy piece of cinema that disturbs by suggestion, nuance and ambiguity. Strategy is exceptionally supported on screen by thesp Jeremy Renner as the killer and lenser Chris Manley, who creates with Jacobson physical spaces dotted with bodies and primary-colored light worthy of Francis Bacon. Self-release of pic in select cities seems a big marketing misjudgment, since premiere platforming at major fests would better position this, with critical support, as the artistically important indie film that it is. Second life in video, with this title, will be much more impressive.
Jacobson, who enjoyed acclaim with features “Criminal” and “Roast Suckling,” is a writer-director worthy of serious attention. Throughout “Dahmer,” he displays a consistently confident approach, with a strong belief that the camera can show the surface layer of people, things and actions, and allow for meaning to gradually seep through. Pic is as interesting for what it leaves out as for what it keeps in, and most impressive of all is the absence of a moralistic perspective on the killing rampage that reached its climax in 1991. It is quite enough, the film suggests, to show and not tell, albeit in a form that accordions and slightly fictionalizes the numerous deaths, fluidly interspersed with flashbacks.
Opening credit montage of assembly line at chocolate factory where Dahmer works in the early ’90s immediately tells viewer that this isn’t the Jeffrey Dahmer movie anyone is expecting, and with calm, precise efficiency, action moves right into Dahmer bringing a victim, Khamtay (Dion Basco), home for slow torture. Incredibly, Khamtay manages to get away, but Dahmer convinces skeptical Milwaukee cops that he’s just a friend who’s a bit out of it.
Not only does this sequence, shorn of all but the most essential talk, show how Dahmer managed to get away with his killings for several years, but it artfully places the viewer in a third-person position to observe such incidental but chilling shocks as Khamtay reviving in bed and finding the corpse of a black man beside him, or Dahmer going to his grandma’s house to dispose of a crow which has gotten inside her kitchen.
Thus begins a series of flashbacks that may be too numerous for the movie’s own good, but which fill in the details of this human monster. An extremely effective and sustained scene with a younger Dahmer trying to hide his growing fetishes for mannequins from grandma (Kate Williamson) and Dahmer’s inquisitive father Lionel (Bruce Davison) encapsulates the growing-up stage and the faulty family life in a few minutes. Another flashback is triggered by Dahmer picking up young, cocky Rodney (Artel Kayaru) in a knife store and going to a gay bar where, a few years before, Dahmer had systematically drugged and raped dozens of male clubbers.
This interlude, driven by light strobes and rapid montage, is the only one with a hint of sensationalism. Otherwise, pic is almost startlingly matter-of-fact, supported by a keen sense of gradual build-up. Slow burn is beautifully handled in another flashback, which is punctuated by repeat visits to present, showing Dahmer’s first killing when he was still living at home. Murder of Lance Bell (Matt Newton) is an act which startles Dahmer as much as his victim, and it’s here that Renner’s quiet characterization reaches full depth.
A flat, slightly overfed and sleepy Midwestern style informs Renner’s Dahmer. It’s a brave performance on every level, not only in the occasionally graphic displays of savagery but in a deliberate blankness that covers his character like a scum. Davison as Dahmer’s father gives off glints of suspicion, but, like everyone else, nary a grasp of the scale of the depravity before him. Karayu, Basco and Newton as the black, Asian and white victims suggest Dahmer’s perhaps unconscious wish to slaughter the human race.
Pic’s look is a vibrant, hard modernism of a refined sort, with the camera usually kept at a distance. The exquisite soundtrack pulsates with selected sounds conveying (sans images) violence and an electronic score of unnerving moodiness by Christina Agamanolis, Mariana Bernoski and Willow Williamson.