Film Reflections: “My Friend Dahmer”

Horror writers and fans have a complicated relationship with evil.

Wait, let me start over.

Living, breathing human beings have a complicated relationship with evil.

We’ve all suffered some inequity or abuse, we’ve all doled it out at some time, and we’ve all identified the Other who is worse than us: the target, the shadow, the thing we don’t want to be. The person who loses their personhood and becomes nothing more than a monster in our oh-so-comfortable eyes. Comfortable? Yes. The scapegoat gives you the leisure of safety from yourself. Relax: you’re one of the good guys.

MFD is a deeply compassionate work about where monsters come from. It’s mundane, subtle, and kind of hilarious. Except it’s not, because we all know where it ends. Imagine Gus Van Sant re-made Napolean Dynamite and Napolean wanted to be a vivisectionist. He leaves his prom date to get a burger and eats it alone in the limo. Hilarious. Until you put it in context.

Context is the whole message of the film.

I watched MFD in a small venue with too much ambient light. I had an ample view of the collective cringe of the other audience members as the story progressed. What’s lacking in MFD is the usual juicy formative trauma that we (comfortably) think creates a serial killer. Surely the small insults of an average existence can’t make a monster. Childhood teasing, the potential of bullying, disjointed families, developmental sexual confusion: aren’t these average American problems? Don’t we need some massive and lascivious gross-out event to seal the deal?

No. It’s the soul-death by a thousand small cuts. It’s the reason we’re arguing about firearm legislation, the reason high school children had to cancel their gun reform protest today when an active shooter entered their school. It’s the reason I see time-bombs everywhere I look. It’s the reason Dahmer’s dad in the movie is truly loving and utterly misguided all at once when he tells his son, “Don’t be like me.”

Don’t be gay, don’t be shy, don’t be quiet. Don’t feel anything other than strength. If you feel weak, drown that shit in some bourbon. Be a man, build your muscles, power through the bullshit. Hide what’s wrong. Lead a double life.

The scenes with the son and father are my favorite parts of the film. There’s so much unspoken longing between them. Anger, love, confusion. Then the artist/author friend enters the scene and aggressively befriends the outcast. It’s a promise that can’t be fulfilled, but the author is too young and inexperienced to understand what he is promising.

MFD is a meditation on culpability, a meditation on mundane evil. Often evil is not dramatic or sexy or exciting: most often, it is slow as cancer and cumulatively binding.

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