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Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story review: Netflix original is grim, unflinching but a tad too long

Created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan for Netflix, Dahmer is a poignant and gut-wrenching fictional account of the notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's exploits.

3.5/5rating
Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story review: Netflix original is grim, unflinching but a tad too long
Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer in the new Netflix original
  • Swaroop Kodur

Last Updated: 07.20 AM, Sep 25, 2022

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Story:

The life of the American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is spread across various crucial timelines to tell an overarching story of his notoriety. The fictional retelling is done largely through the perspectives of his victims as the 10-episode Netflix original, aside from being a poignant character study of Jeff Dahmer, also throws light on the racial/political climate of the times and how the inexplicable crimes severely affected everyone around.

Review:

Jeffrey Dahmer's gut-wrenching exploits as a serial killer have already been documented in a true-crime documentary form but it would seem that Netflix isn't whole-heartedly done yet. In an era where serial killers are almost eulogized to a point that the inherent violence is no longer an issue for mass consumption, it came as a bit of surprise when Ryan Murphy (along with Ian Brennan), one of the main creative forces behind the conception of the American Crime Story, showed interest in Dahmer's life. What seems like a pretty straightforward telling, in which a serial killer's notoriety is explored through certain crucial and revelatory events, the latest Netflix original Dahmer: Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story comes as a few shades different and mainly because the creators (Murphy and Brennan) have a larger focus in sight. As much as this is an explorative exercise about a most infamous subject, Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan also lend the 10-part series the tenderness and warmth of a coming-of-age tale that has all the similar beats but is devoid of colour and any form of hope. Do they succeed in weaving this rather peculiar narrative? Well, maybe to an extent. 

At the outset, one might wonder why a high-profile serial killer warrants ten almost-50-minute-long episodes, especially when the whole story is out there marinating in current pop culture. Even for a fictional account (which Dahmer very much is), this is a bit of a stretch because one is now fully aware of the navigations of the modern-era biography but the writers here summon our attention quite early in the show by setting a rivetting precedent. Perhaps that's exactly why the show opens in 1991, almost 14 years after the first kill, when the now-prolific serial killer and cannibal Jeff Dahmer picks up the affable Tracey Edwards at a nightclub and brings him back home. The ‘home’, so to speak, is a dump-yard of trouble signs – blood stains, the stench of human flesh discharging from every corner, and the general lack of humanity inside. Legendary filmmaker Carl Franklin directs the opening episode wherein he brings his astute sense of the ghetto and small spaces as a filmmaker to the fore and explores the sunset moments of Dahmer with feverish energy, soaking the atmosphere in palpable danger, silence, and grim sodium light of his apartment.

In one breath, we see Tracey Edwards escape the clutches of his killer and storm through the hallway while his screams beckon the neighbour Glenda (played by the outstanding Niecy Nash) out of her apartment and help catch a glimpse of a visibly annoyed Jeff Dahmer (who now knows that the bell has finally tolled for him). It is in these moments that we begin to realize what the creators are really after and that is to comprise all the essential elements of the large narrative under one single roof – aside from Jeffrey Dahmer, the show is also interested in unravelling the stories of the victims and the bystanders of the horror.

And this begins to happen mainly in the second half of the show because the first five episodes are dedicated to the founding and exploration of Jeffrey Dahmer. The storyline is cut haphazardly across various timelines to make the character study as unsettling and objective as possible, albeit with moments lingering to bring out Dahmer’s absolute amorality. We are told that his mother Joyce (played by both Savannah Brown and Penelope Ann Miller) was a bit of a prescription-pill fiend and was on 26 different medications while pregnant with him. In the next scene, we see that the father Lionel Dahmer (played by Josh Braaten and Richard Jenkins), a seemingly level-headed man at first glance, has a penchant for roadkill and often sets out with his six-year-old son to spot dead animals on the side for a fun taxidermy session. And to make things worse, the parents are bickering one another’s sanity away, leaving the older kid Jeff to silently soak it all in and harbour apathy unknowingly. There isn’t a final straw that’s broken in the case of Jeff Dahmer but an incredibly long string of events that set him on the path that no one else trod on.

In a way, Dahmer is partly a coming-of-age tale because we see the protagonist slowly chipping away until he finds what he truly loves, even though there is no way to ever accept or fathom the evil that resided in him.

But the tone takes a surprising twist and just as when one feels that the events surrounding Dahmer are growing increasingly repetitive, the writers introduce an element of sweetness into the story. In episode six (titled Silenced written by David McMillan and Janet Mock), we are introduced to Tony Hughes (played by Rodney Burnford), a black, deaf, and gay character, who runs into Jeff Dahmer in the latter’s favourite hunting spot (a Milwaukee gay nightclub) and soon enough, we see some kind of genuine romance blossom between the two. Among the many who crossed paths with Dahmer, it becomes apparent that Tony is the only one he feels genuinely something for and as he resists multiple temptations to drug and kill him, one begins to wonder if there was any scope for love and mercy in the case of this serial killer. But, the simmering discomfort at this tonal shift is soon made real and before we know it, Jeff Dahmer is back to his reluctant killing methods.

In an interview that was telecasted a few hours after his death in prison, Jeff Dahmer says that he chose to lobotomize his victims so that he could turn them into zombies and exercise complete control over them. He adds that several lobotomy trials, which included drilling holes in their skills and filling them with acid, went awry which led to him killing them eventually.

What follows this is a valiant attempt at giving a voice to those suppressed and affected by the Jeff Dahmer mania. It doesn’t come as a shocker that the aftermath of his arrest puts the Milwaukee police and law in terrible light as their gross negligence and underlying racism allowed for Dahmer, a white male, to skip both arrests and multiple degrees of punishment. Glenda Cleveland, who bore witness to the grisliness as his neighbour, is finally lent a platform to share her account and also reveal the number of attempts she had to make to get those in charge to take heed of Jeff Dahmer’s crimes. There’s a silver lining in Lionel Dahmer’s case too who, after admitting that he too suffered from similar tendencies as his son but was luckily able to ward them off in time, chronicles his experiences in a book form and even achieves some success as a result.

Verdict:

Dahmer: Monster: The Story of Jeffrey Dahmer is a compelling watch for most parts but the show also suffers from over-articulation towards the end. Quite easily one of the better documents of Netflix’s favourite true-crime genre, Dahmer is a grim, unflinching tale that may not be palatable for everyone but with some fine writing, direction, and clarity in its gaze, the show becomes more than just a guilty pleasure. Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer is extremely convincing and the show is elevated further by incredible performances of the principal cast – for those who enjoyed and admired the nuances of shows like The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, Dahmer is likely to interest you in spite of its inconsistencies and an unwarranted runtime.

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