True crime adaptations can feel cheap and exploitative of real-world traumas, something some critics have suggested is the case for Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. However, independent filmmaker Marie Vandelannoote believes the series has a complexity and sincerity that needs to be given more credit.
Jeffrey Dahmer. John Wayne Gacy. Ted Bundy. Dennis Rader. These bogeymen of our reality, pure products of American-style ultra-violence, fascinate as much as they repulse. And it is important to try and understand why true crime stories are so popular in modern film productions.
Jeffrey Dahmer, because of the eminently perverse and sadistic nature of his crimes, has inspired a number of movies, such as the terrific My Friend Dahmer, by Marc Meyers. But with Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, Ryan Murphy doesn’t just unfold the facts of a macabre and sordid story, but truly drags us deep inside an inhuman and bestial mind.
The series even pushes the boundaries of philosophical, religious and societal debate by asking this famous question: Is redemption possible for everyone, even for the most sadistic and perverted criminals?
A confession: I actually didn’t want to watch this show. Usually, the idea of a new Ryan Murphy production always excites me – to the point that I’d consider selling one of my mother’s kidneys to watch his work, undisturbed. Feud, Hollywood, The Politician, and of course the many American Horror Story(ies), 9.1.1, Ratched and more recently The Watcher are so many narrative and visual pleasures that I’m never tired of.
And yet I almost missed this. Because something always bothers me when it comes to real serial killers.
Don’t get me wrong, I love horror stories. It’s no secret to anyone. After all, I make a living out of them! But Michael Myers and Leatherface both have the advantage of coming straight out of screenwriters’ twisted imagination and only exist for the duration of a movie or a series. Their evil disappears when the screen turns black again.
But Jeffrey Dahmer was real. And so were his victims.
This has been an issue for me before – and with Murphy’s previous work too. The starification of Richard ‘The Night Stalker’ Ramirez in Season 9 of American Horror Story disturbed me a lot. I found it inappropriate, it felt uncomfortably trivial. And I was afraid that this situation would happen again in Dahmer-Monster.
It would have been easy for Murphy and his acolyte, the show’s co-creator Ian Brennen, to fall into a bidding war of gory scenes and horrible situations. Another production might have given in to wallowing in the repugnance of the crimes, and to practice a kind of indecent glorification of the murderer Dahmer.
But, in my opinion, this series avoided that pitfall; and instead delivered a more modest work. Instead, it remains focused on the personality of Jeffrey Dahmer, his relationship to his family, and his victims.
Of course, his multiple crimes are narrated with morbid precision, but the horror and the abject are here more suggested than visualised; adding some decency to the story, even if the viewer’s emotional torture is very real while he is sucked into the anguish of Dahmer’s preys’ last moments.
Evan Peters, who plays the role of Dahmer himself, told Netflix in an interview:
“We had one rule going into this from Ryan [Murphy] that it would never be told from Dahmer’s point of view. As an audience, you’re not really sympathising with him. You’re not really getting into his plight, you’re more sort of watching it from the outside.”
And the contract was honoured.
The series gives a voice to the victims and their families and offers a critique of homophobia and ambient racism in the United States during the years 1980-1990, as well as an unflattering portrait of the police and the American prison and justice system.
Murphy and Brennan manage to denounce the deficiencies of American society by describing the climate of racism and systemic homophobia that allowed Dahmer to avoid being arrested for a very long time despite all the blatant red flags, especially when his neighbour Glenda could not convince the police to save 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone. Powerless, she had to watch the police hand over this young victim to his executioner Dahmer, leaving Glenda (and the viewer) in shock, especially when we remember that this is a true story.
“It’s called The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, but it’s not just him and his backstory. It’s the repercussions; it’s how society and our system failed to stop him multiple times, because of racism and homophobia…”
In particular, the sixth episode centres on Tony Hughes, a young, black, gay and deaf man, murdered by Dahmer in May 1991. The story deeply moved me because of the way Paris Barclay directed it, which fits perfectly with a very well-written and constructed narrative.
This episode shows us the personality of Hughes, his generosity, his confidence and his benevolence, qualities supposed to define our humanity. Qualities that are literally “devoured” at the end of the episode by an emotionless Dahmer Monster.
And then there is the final episode: God of Forgiveness, God of Vengeance, directed by Paris Barclay.
Glenda’s monologue, (from actor Niecy Nash) is beautifully written and interpreted with great sincerity. During a confession at church, she speaks of the forgiveness and hatred she feels for Dahmer and which repulses her.
Those themes permeate the entire episode, in an examination of forgiveness, hatred, revenge, rebirth, the strength of the struggle of good against evil, as well as the contradiction of a supposed mercy, would deserve a much deeper analysis alone.
A lot has already been said about the casting of the show. Critics were unanimous about Evan Peters’ performance. I won’t contradict that, Peters plays a truer-than-life Dahmer, able to somehow remove the humanity from his gaze, even when he smiles – which I imagine must be a particularly difficult thing for an actor to do… but all those years with American Horror Story probably helped. With all that training in the characterisation of psychopathy and the dehumanisation that comes with it, he was well placed to take on this role.
However, reviews have talked a little less about Richard Jenkins and Penelope Ann Miller, which is a shame. Both deliver gripping performances as Dahmer’s parents. Jenkins, as Lionel Dahmer, has an endearing side, despite some emanations of narcissism and a toxic masculinity that tends to break down any sympathy one might have for him. But his questioning, tinged with pride and a certain love for the monster he somehow has created, is perfectly transcribed by Jenkins. The coldness mixed with the “eccentricity” of Miller as Joyce Dahmer is also strikingly realistic.
All in all then, in spite of some imperfections due mainly to pacing (in particular in episode nine, The Bogeyman), Dahmer – Monster is a work to see, to analyse and to digest. Its morbid true story is mostly well documented and sincere – brought to life by Jason McCormick’s appropriately gloomy cinematography, and some impeccable acting. Meanwhile, its fragmented and surprising narration surpassed my expectations going into it.
I do understand the criticisms of opportunism and morbid solicitation that this series has faced. I see why many true crime series like this give people concerns that a serial killer might be glorified or humanised. But I don’t share that feeling here. In my opinion, it is a false trial, and Murphy is the scapegoat for collateral damages that he is not responsible for. From the starification of Charles Manson by the media to that of Ted Bundy.
Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is a paradox, a work of fiction telling a true story quite faithfully, that of the macabre and avoidable itinerary of a serial killer with no limits. And therein lies the difficulty and complexity for the viewer: to understand what they decide they should feel, stuck in a reflection on Evil, its origins and above all its lack of rationalisation.