Given the recent rise in far-right movements across the western World — Trump in America, Brexit and Theresa May in Britain, anti-Merkel forces in Germany — many left-leaning audiences seem to want art to compensate for the perceived immorality around them.
They prefer Hollywood, at this juncture in history, to allocate its finite resources towards work that enacts some sort of a positive societal impact. Though progressivism almost always deserves to be celebrated, doing so does not necessarily entail refusing the place of art that may not have the most moral intentions.
One such example is My Friend Dahmer, a title thats lays bare one of the movie’s predominant goals: To humanize Jeffrey Dahmer, a man who was – to quote Wikipedia – “an American serial killer and sex offender, who committed the rape, murder, and dismemberment of 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991. Many of his later murders involved necrophilia, cannibalism, and the permanent preservation of body parts.” Though he’s at times depicted in a depraved light in My Friend Dahmer, much of it explores what factors could contribute to his ultimate view of mankind as, if not worthy of his eventual mutilations, then at least expendable enough to satisfy his sick urges.
Naysayers of this approach will no doubt reference the rote portrayals of teenage dysfunction, from the typical melodramatics of a rifted family to usual high school bullying. Though the execution definitely relies on too many tired tropes, that may have been writer/director Marc Meyers’ point: Thrust the wrong person into the wrong conditions, and a sadly-common, but still depressing, upbringing can transform an insecure kid into a serial killer. He could argue that cliches were essential to highlighting the Everyman possibility of the Dahmers all around us, but the excessive conventionally feels drawn out in its predictable inevitability.
Meyers even mooches the aesthetic look of the film from Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, a similarly focused movie that, in comparison, shed new insights on the developmental psychology of murderers. Heck, even Ross Lynch – the actor cast as Dahmer – bears a resemblance to John Robinson, who played one of the Columbine shooters. To his credit, the deliberately creepy Lynch, hunched over like a Richard III-ian outcast, manages to add dimensionality to vary – though insufficiently – his overwhelming disaffected moodiness.
Yet these downsides in no way diminish the impressively radical concept at My Friend Dahmer‘s core. During a time when so many unfairly marginalized communities are being discriminated against due to ignorant, uneducated prejudice, attempting to elicit empathy for the likes of Richard Dahmer may come across like a wildly inappropriate waste. Yet I’d argue that understanding what relatable elements could turn the worst among us into true “others” is a justifiably valid intent for an artistic enterprise. Sympathy may feel wrong, but it can foster greater understanding of how to prevent more Dahmers in the future.