If you’re even tangentially familiar with the whole Jeffrey Dahmer affair, then you’re probably well enough aware to know that it has to be one of the most bizarre stories in human history. It’s creepy enough knowing that you might live next door to a serial killer, and it gets even creepier when you realize the guy – one day, a few years back – may’ve offered you a sandwich that you ate. Still, it gets even more disturbing when you realize just how many young men he may’ve dismembered only fifty feet away from where you hang your hat. The fact that all of this hardship and bloody carnage went unnoticed – especially given the circumstances of your shared living space – only amps up the creep factor to unimaginable heights. How did a man so ordinary, so commonplace, so typically introvert managed to slip in and out so benignly for as long as he did? That’s the question at the heart of Chris James Thompson’s all-too-brief but compelling documentary.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
For those of you normally showing up to get a recap of the story at this point, all I can say is that this is the kind of visual affair where story may not mean all that much. What THE JEFFREY DAHMER FILES is is equal parts documentary and dramatic re-enactment of the affair, and the re-enactments aren’t staged so much in a way to grant you any major ‘enlightenment’ into why that sick, depraved man did what he did; rather, they’re provided here in Thompson’s narrative only to show you how ‘average’ it all probably appeared to those who played some passing role in the entirety of it all. Much of it plays out with great banality – Dahmer shopping for supplies, Dahmer waiting for the bus, Dahmer being Dahmer, etc. – that it’s easy for viewers to question why such scenes would ever be conceived much less included in a theatrical release; methinks that’s probably some of what Mr. Thompson wants.
Specifically, he longs to show you just how mundane it all was. He wants it to appear perfectly trivial. That’s because it’s all meant to serve as a juxtaposition against how utterly demented Jeffrey Dahmer was. If you’re entirely unaware, then I’d encourage you to Google … and then some. This is the stuff of American nightmares. This is the stuff that keeps you awake at night. Dahmer is, by far, probably one of the best examples of a living, breathing serial killer – certainly one of the most legitimate of the past few decades – and his story is certainly deserving of further study and scrutiny. That’s part of what Thompson is trying to accomplish, and, yes, I too wish he had done it with some greater depth.
However, there’s incredible resonance in the scenes that are more conventional documentary stuff here. The scenes of his neighbor recounting her experiences with him … the dialogue between Dahmer and the arresting detective … the dialogue with the medical examiner called to the scene of Dahmer’s almost clinical atrocities … that’s the stuff that’ll stick with you when the rest of this is lost to your memory. Like I said, that’s the stuff of real nightmares, and much of it is downright chilling.
I think it’s reasonable to conclude that there are probably quite a few people who will be suitably unimpressed with FILES. After all, how do you produce a lean, mean documentary on arguably one of the most infamous serial killers of a generation and only have it clock in at a paltry 75 minutes? Dare I say I was looking for a little more meat on them bones? (Too soon?) Still, I was fascinated enough by what I saw even though a few scenes played out with what I’d guess was unintentional comic effect to stick with it. And, to be perfectly honest, there’s more here that could’ve been trimmed – the opening scenes wherein Dahmer spends way too much time picking out fish for the aquarium in his apartment are given a decidedly unnecessary artsy-fartsy inclination really not befitting the picture are a perfect example. Still, there’s a vision here; while some might disagree with it artistically, I think it might be hard not to be captivated by some of it.
THE JEFFREY DAHMER FILES (2012) is produced by Good / Credit Productions. DVD distribution is being handled through MPI Media Group. As for the technical specifications, the DVD looks and sounds mostly solid; there are a few sequences where the audio sounds a bit off, but trust me when I tell you that’s part and parcel of writer/director Chris James Thompson’s vision. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that FILES has played to some acclaim at film festivals, the most prominent being SXSW (aka South By SouthWest). Lastly, there’s a solid handful here of special features that take the shape of several deleted scenes, video snippets, and Q&As with the talent that are worth a look – in the end, they may not add much weight to the already haunting atmosphere, but they’re an option for those interested.
RECOMMENDED. Who knows? THE JEFFREY DAHMER FILES could end up as controversial as the dreaded killer himself. I found director Thompson’s vision compelling enough to stick with it despite some predilection for artistic interpretation that didn’t feel right given the nature of the story and the storytelling, but who’s to say it was a bad choice? To be, it felt like visual hiccups. I suspect this may not go down in history as being the definitive retelling of the Dahmer nightmare, but, for what it is, it’s certainly a unique perspective that tries to give one portrait of the man’s claim to fame.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MPI Media Group and IFC Midnight provided me with a DVD copy of THE JEFFREY DAHMER FILES by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.