Monster movie: is it possible to sympathize with gay serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer? An intelligent new film tries. – movie review

Jan Stuart

Dahmer * Written and directed by David Jacobson * Starring Jeremy Rennet, Bruce Davison, and Artel Kayaru * Peninsula Films

My friend was very quiet as we walked out of Murder by Numbers. When I asked him what he thought of the picture, he launched into a tirade about “all these movies with implied or overt gay sociopaths.” My comeback–that the simmering undercurrent of homoerotic tension was the most interesting part of the film; the screenwriter had worked overtime not to make the killers another queer Leopold and Loeb–was quickly scuttled as we overheard two gay men who had also just seen the picture bitching over the same thing.

As we emulate the paranoia of every other beleaguered minority in this country (another friend once told me she refused to see Sergio Leone’s marvelous Once Upon a Time in America because it showed Jews as gangsters), we seem to be locking down into a posture of hair-trigger defensiveness over public image. Give us gay, Mr. Producer, but be sure it’s positive-role-model gay. Or victimized gay. Spare us the Versace killer movies and the Leopold and Loeb spin-offs for another day, when we’re not so oppressed.

Some think queer folk will come of age with gay marriage. I personally think we will have arrived when we can handle gay murderers.

There are those who will refuse to see Dahmer, David Jacobson’s dramatized portrayal of Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee man who murdered and dismembered some 17 men and boys, because it’s not good for the gays. Then there are the violence-shy, myself included, who would be resistant to the exploitation potential inherent in the story of a serial killer who also indulged in necrophilia and cannibalism.

There is a little drill-and-saw action in the partly fictionalized Dahmer, which otherwise devotes itself to the psychosexual dynamic between the killer (played with an aptly invisible allure by Jeremy Renner) and his victims. Jacobson employs a jazzy, intermittently confusing nonlinear format as he jumps between a young Dahmer’s earliest forays into gay bars–where he would drug his prey unconscious and rape them in the back rooms–and an older Dahmer’s mating dance with three pickups.

Two encounters dominate: a straight jock he lures home with marijuana (Matt Newton) and a black gay sales clerk he meets at a sporting goods store (a fine Artel Kayaru). Dahmer’s ploys are familiar enough (he tries to tease the reluctant jock into receiving a blow job by arguing for the anonymity of sex in the dark) to make the seductions a turn-on and a horror. Jacobson wants us to feel disturbed by the thin line that separates one’s libidinous urges from more dangerous impulses, and we do. There is an undeniably queasy tension among Dahmer’s strategies, the resistance put up by his partners, and our own dread of the inevitable.

What we don’t get are answers. Issues of authority (Dahmer shares a tense rapport with his father, played by Bruce Davison) and gay self-loathing are haphazardly tossed into the mix. Jacobson only grazes the surface in addressing the complex relationship between his subject’s seeming attraction to Asian and African-American men and his own racism. Or is it identification? The Pandora’s box of Dahmer’s sanity is not even touched.

But I’m glad the picture was made. It takes Dahmer’s history out of the realm of the unfathomable and makes it knowable, if not explainable. It’s too bad that Paul Rudnick got to the title Jeffrey first. It would have been a much more fitting name for a picture that attempts to elucidate the banality of an evildoer who was, let’s be real, a serious homo.

Stuart is film critic and senior film writer at Newsday.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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