Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/28/06 22:59:39

"Whether you want it or not, an up-close-and-personal look at the man."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I'm still waiting for Jeremy Renner to be given the chance to build on the promise he shows in 'Dahmer,' a quietly incisive portrait of the notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

Looking at times uncannily like a young Kevin Spacey (and at others, particularly at his most mischievous, like Malcolm McDowell circa Clockwork Orange and O Lucky Man!), Renner gets inside Dahmer and, upsettingly, takes us with him. He's as affecting as the teenage Dahmer furtively beginning his path to damnation as he is haunting as the older Dahmer beyond redemption (and knowing it). At all times, though, he also makes Dahmer smart enough to be hellishly manipulative -- he may look dazed and passive, but the bastard thinks fast on his feet, the better to hoodwink those around him (as well as his unsuspecting victims). There's a chilling scene wherein he fools some cops into releasing an escaped victim back into his custody (which really happened), while two black women who see Dahmer for what he is protest in vain. The scene speaks volumes about police racism (the victim is Asian, too) without ever preaching.

Dahmer has come in for some criticism because it barely shows the full horror of what Dahmer did. To some extent, that's true. Writer-director David Jacobson most likely assumes we already know the ghastly details, and wants to come at the story from a different angle. Making it more difficult for himself, Jacobson doesn't indulge in any blame-the-parents-for-the-psycho -- indeed, Dahmer's dad (Bruce Davison) is depicted as a decent man frustrated by being locked out of major parts of his son's life. Jacobson doesn't dabble in much analysis, either: Dahmer is what he is. But what he is, aside from the monster we know from the headlines, is a human being. And that's not to excuse his actions remotely -- we need to understand that people like Dahmer don't land here from another planet; they are carbon-based life forms like the rest of us, and simply holding them at arm's length as "monsters" won't prevent the development (or aid the detection) of future Dahmers.

This isn't a horror movie so much as a -- sorry -- psychodrama. There's scarcely any bloodshed, and even the most grisly segment -- Dahmer slitting open a victim's belly and fishing around inside -- is muted by unfolding in a red-lighted bedroom. Jacobson doesn't want you to recoil; he wants you to see the loathsome acts in terms of the meaning they have for Dahmer. Perhaps also he wants you to see them as antiseptically as Dahmer possibly forced himself to see them.

What's the point of soft-pedaling the acts of a monster? Well, showing it in full gorehound glory would be horribly insensitive to the friends and family of Dahmer's real-life victims (even though the film admits upfront that it's fictionalized) and carry the unpalatable side effect of being a gross-out fun video for sickos. It should be said that Jacobson humanizes the victims -- especially "Rodney" (Artel Kayaru), the victim who got away -- so that the focus of the film becomes Dahmer's highly damaged mode of interaction with his prey. If you want a different take on Dahmer, there's always 1993's The Secret Life -- Jeffrey Dahmer, written by and starring Carl Crew, and released on video not long before Dahmer was killed in prison.

Worth a look, if only for Renner's complex performance, but also for Jacobson's artful (yet never artsy) direction. It's a fine addition to the small but growing subgenre of Serious Serial-Killer Movies. And as long as humanity is fascinated by such people (i.e., forever), there will be movies made about them, so they may as well be soberly intentioned and brilliantly acted.

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