Title: The Jeffrey Dahmer Files
Director: Chris James Thompson
An unusual blend of nonfiction recollection and rather tranquil dramatic re-enactment, “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” attempts to disassemble and reconstruct the ordinary-guy façade of a necrophiliac murderer by way of testimonial from three people whose lives intersected the notorious Milwaukee serial killer. The result, while intermittently engaging, feels less cinematic and more suited to television news magazine programming of the sort one might see on A&E or MSNBC during any given weekend.
Dahmer, for those perhaps too young to remember, was arrested in the summer of 1991 when a man’s head was found in his refrigerator, and he was eventually charged with killing 17 people, dismembering their bodies in gruesome ways, saving various trophies and in some cases even eating them. Originally titled just “Jeff,” director Chris James Thompson’s movie intersperses archival footage with the remembrances of a unique trio — the police detective, Pat Kennedy, who first queried Dahmer and took his confession; the city medical examiner, Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, who processed the crime scene and handled much of the testing that helped identify the victims; and Pamela Bass, a neighbor of Dahmer’s who lived in the same apartment complex and befriended him.
Taken together, these interviewees weave a fairly compelling tale, including their reactions to Dahmer’s death in prison two years after being sentenced to 957 years incarceration. Kennedy in particular is a somewhat theatrical character — his slightly-too-big-for-his-face moustache makes him seem like a cross between Harry Reems and Tom Crean, ready for a rodeo — and his ruminations give the movie its spine. In fact, Kennedy’s memories and anecdotes (it was clothes from his high school-age son that Dahmer borrowed to wear to his first public hearing) are often almost as fascinating for his processing and feelings regarding them as some of the content itself (“I don’t think it’s in my best interest to talk to you about that,” said Dahmer when the subject of the head in his icebox was first raised).
It’s a shame, then, that “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files,” which otherwise benefits from a subtle yet strong score by composer Robert Mulrennan, seems so restless and rudderless. The film’s recreations — starring Andrew Swant as Dahmer — are far from exploitative or gruesome; they mainly consist of everyday routines, and quiet scenes of him buying items he would use in his killings, like a barrel, security cameras and acid. Yet they add little to the collective punch of the movie, and are further undermined by the ill-reasoned use of archival footage featuring the real Dahmer. Smarter editing could have utilized some of that same footage but cut around Dahmer. Thompson, though, tries to thread a too-fine needle with this already spare experiment, which clocks in at just over 75 minutes. It’s a art collage project that unnecessarily obscures its sizzle and raison d’être when a more straightforward tack would have worked better.
NOTE: In addition to its theatrical engagements, “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” is also available across various cable VOD platforms, as well as iTunes, Xbox and Sundance Now. For more information, visit www.JeffTheMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon