You’d be hard pressed to find someone as obsessed with true crime and serial killers as myself. I watch “Snapped” to relax on the weekends. I watch “Forensic Files” to go to sleep some nights. I’ve seen just about very single true crime documentary Netflix has to offer. So the wordy, strangely titled “Dahmer- Monster: A Jeffery Dahmer Story” starring acting favorite Evan Peters should be right up my alley. Unfortunately, Murphy’s final offering on his Netflix deal is a misguided attempt to reframe and rehash a tired old tale of monsters among us. Weighed down by non linear storytelling that feels more like a maze than any kind of direct narrative, “Dahmer” struggles to add anything new to a story we’ve heard and seen a thousand times over. What’s worse, is that Murphy’s decision to put Dahmer front and center lends itself to victimizing the predator, a balancing act that the series really never gets right. “Dahmer” is an Evan Peters performance showcase and little else. Painfully dull, exhaustingly familiar, and at times exploitative, sending the wrong message of sympathy for psychopath. It is a slog to get through with nothing substantial to say, rehashing a harrowing story that should be about the victims but instead attempts to victimize Dahmer himself.
Created and written by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan and predominantly directed by Clement Virgo and Jennifer Lynch, “Dahmer” is a relatively straight forward retelling of the decades long killing spree of notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Dahmer was convicted of killing 17 victims, many of which were queer, black men and also drugged and dismembered a number of his victims, even eating some body parts and keeping the remains in his apartment for months. The story bounces around from year to year, reaching far back into his childhood and adolescent years, as well as covering the majority of his killing spree, his capture, the trial that followed and his death two years after being convicted. It is an all encompassing look at the life and crimes of one of America’s most notorious serial killers, and even explores the communities he targeted and how the police department were complicit in his ability to go undetected for so long.
The first major issue with “Dahmer” is that it never quite makes a case for existing in the first place. There is little no new information in this 10 episode, painfully slow unraveling of events. Dahmer’s acts and crimes have been well documented and covered for decades, so Murphy’s choice to want to retell it all over again seems like a misstep before things even get started. A great performer portraying a vile person isn’t enough justification to spend over 10 hours watching him prey on the vulnerable, and is even less effective because everything in that long, long watching experience has a forgone conclusion that anyone who’s ever heard a single true crime podcast already knows. Murphy wants to create atmospheric tension with every new encounter, but his misguided framework causes a juxtaposition of dull, sepia tone scenery mixed with assaulting rage and discomfort. The hard truth is Dahmer himself simply doesn’t deserve this much care and attention, and “Dahmer’s” other major fault is what it IS trying to say is open for the wrong kind of interpretation.
I don’t believe that Murphy’s true intent is to ask the audience to garner sympathy for his main character, but “Dahmer’s” constant laser focus on Dahmer paired with Evan Peters‘ extreme likability and charm makes hard not to feel like that’s what’s they’re asking us to do. Intent or not, the themes that run underneath it all seem to suggest that Dahmer wasn’t a monster, just a misunderstood individual who would’ve been fine if he had just been hugged as a child. There’s a sense of “if only his parents were nicer to each other” or “if only his father has told him he loved him once in a while” or “if only he was able to come out and be himself,” then he wouldn’t have killed all of those people. “Dahmer” seeks to understand the unfathomable, and in doing so ends up crossing the line from simply acknowledging his upbringing was a little rough to damn near saying the quiet part out loud. In no way is Dahmer a victim. Not of his time, not of his upbringing, and certainly not of his desperation for attachment and love. The title aptly names him a monster, but the “Dahmer” series appears to want to completely humanize him in ways that feel more uncomfortable than they should be.
Again, I’m not saying that Murphy intended to do this. I have full confidence that no one involved in this show went into it with the hope that we would feel for and feel better about Jeffery Dahmer. It’s simply baked into the shows very existence, of which there is no case for it in the first place. “Dahmer” just feels like a misguided attempt at exploiting lived trauma from a skewed perspective that, whether intentional or not, paints Dahmer in a light he should never, EVER, be viewed in. And while you may not feel that that is what is happening here, the simple fact that “Dahmer” allows itself to be interpreted as such is a major flaw in the whole series. If anyone can walk away from 10 hours of watching Peters’ Dahmer feeling anything other than complete repulsion and disgust, then you have done something wrong in your series.
It’s not all bad for “Dahmer” though. There are a few things it gets right, the first of which is Peters’ performance. He completely disappears here, and taps into a tormented and psychopathic soul with shocking ease. Peters’ rarely disappoints, and despite everything going against him beneath the surface, he loses himself completely and transforms into the monster he is portraying. I kind of want him to just do a string of Christmas in July Hallmark movies for while after this. Peters has made a career out of playing unsettling characters, only occasionally dipping into his stellar comedic and charming chops. After 10 hours of watching him in “Dahmer,” you can’t help but want to see Evan crack a smile without some devious intent behind it once is a while. Neicy Nash as his suspicious neighbor is also fantastic here, serving as an audience surrogate for all the exenuating circumstances that led to Dahmer’s ability to thrive for so long. Nash taps into the desperation of marginalized communities to be heard and recognized, as well as the devastating realization that no one that should help them is going to, despite her persistence to tell anyone that something isn’t right.
To that point, everyone does the best with what they have. Richard Jenkins as the jaded father unable to understand his own son is a surprising choice for him but a welcomed one for viewers. Molly Ringwald is also a surprise addition, but taps into the new mother role rather well. The victims shown in the series also turn in heartbreaking performances, particularly in episode 6 titled “Silenced.” The episode is only brief departure from the exploitative nature of the series, and actually does put the victim front and center. Though I would argue that “Dahmer” as whole is hard to get through, “Silenced” is easily the most unsettling, heartbreaking and tragic. It’s the kind of emotional manipulation the show as a whole should be doing, and it is unfortunate that this this all we get.
The last thing “Dahmer” gets right is the police department and how complicit they were in allowing a killer to run rampant for so long unencumbered. Much of what allowed Dahmer to prey on men for so long is directly tied to the homophobia and racism of the time, and the police were no exception. Murphy makes zero qualms about this, and has no problem demonstrating just how much of a contributor this was during his killing spree. Like many other serial killers, Dahmer targeted mostly black, queer men in the poor city he lived, which allowed him to evade capture time and time again for simply being a middle class looking white man.
It is one of the few upsetting aspects of the story that Murphy gets right, and takes a mallet to the nail to drive this point home. And it garners the right emotional response, too. “Dahmer” works hard to fill you with anger at police who let Dahmer take a drugged, injured 14 year old boy back to his apartment with little to no inquiry because he’s a gay minority. Or disbelief that Dahmer gets let off with a warning while driving under the influence with dismembered body in his back seat. His evasion wasn’t due to any kind of skilled abilities and careful planning, and the show rightly points the finger at the right people that truly let innocent lives be lost. The complacency, homophobia and racism of the officers that played a part in this case are rightfully dragged through the dirt here, and “Dahmer” is right to do so.
Despite these few bright spots, “Dahmer” as a whole misses the mark and feels wrong in all of the wrong ways. I am always down for a good old fashioned true crime documentary, but this left me with the hope that this is the last time we visit this story. It is a slog to get through, and no amount of stellar performances can make up for the shows failures.
If you were already on the fence about “Dahmer,” you may be better off skipping this one.
Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars
“Dahmer – Monster: A Jeffrey Dahmer Story” is currently streaming on Netflix. You can watch the trailer below.