Lurid and uncomfortable, Ryan Murphy’s new true-crime series feigns humanity by focusing on Dahmer’s victims but revels in their torment across ten long episodes.
This review of Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is spoiler-free.
Jeffrey Dahmer is one of the most deranged and prolific serial murderers in history. A bespectacled alcoholic from Milwaukee, Dahmer murdered seventeen men and boys between 1978 and 1991. And he wouldn’t just kill his victims – he’d violate them while they were both alive and dead, dismember them, dissolve pieces in giant vats of acid, and leave bits aside to either eat or keep as trophies. He earned the moniker of “Milwaukee Monster” for good reason. If a fiction writer came up with half of the things he did, they’d be accused of laying it on too thick.
But I don’t reel off this laundry list of deplorable activities as an indulgence, at least not in the way that Ryan Murphy’s clumsily-titled Netflix show Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story does. It’s worth mentioning as a reminder of what, exactly, is being dramatized to constitute entertainment here, and also of the morbid fascination that contemporary viewers seem to have with this kind of true crime. What does it say about both our artists and the networks and platforms that house them? What does it say about us that we’re willing to pay for the privilege of exposure to the very worst of what we’re capable of?
Not to get all preachy, of course. Some of the appeal is obvious; there’s a fascination in the most extreme of human behaviors because – hopefully, anyway – they seem so impossibly far removed from our everyday lives. Seeing what people like Dahmer get up to makes us feel better about ourselves, about the one time we told a white lie or stole a Twix, or whatever that thing is we cling to in fear it makes us terrible. Dahmer makes the most unpleasant person you know look like Mother Theresa.
But the question of why we’d want to know remains, perhaps especially why we’d want to see it in this form, which doesn’t have the veneer of respectability that a documentary provides. (Next month, Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes will debut on Netflix, just in case you wanted to hear all this again from the horse’s mouth.) By attempting to imbue Dahmer’s story and crimes with humanity by framing them in the perspective of his victims, Murphy’s latest becomes a ghastly parade of pain, terror, and suffering, for no reason I can fathom besides the fact that people will eat it right up.
The problem is that the show’s good. Not morally, obviously. But on a technical level, it’s an often-striking piece of work, full of great acting and arresting visuals. Longtime Murphy collaborator Evan Peters plays Dahmer – with an uncanny resemblance, it must be said – as a kind of looming android, someone whose emotional damage and trauma have whittled away any semblance of real humanity. He speaks like he’s rehearsing lines in the mirror, with a flat affect and no belief. But when his real fantasies come to the fore, Peters pitches them somewhere between excitement and frustration. Contrasted with the raw humanity of his victims, the effect becomes immediately disconcerting, and uncomfortable after that, because it becomes clear that the point is to revel in the suffering.
At several points during the first episode, I wondered if the show was playing for laughs. Dahmer tries to write off the bad smell emanating from his apartment as leftover pork chops, and then dead tropical fish. When his latest victim escapes and summons the police, Dahmer tries to explain why he’s wearing handcuffs as “some gay stuff”. His aw-shucks “we’re just a couple of homosexuals” routine is like some perverse version of that Steve Buscemi “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme – a monster play-acting as a human being, trying to fit in where he doesn’t belong.
The punchline of this whole bit is that Dahmer nearly has the cops convinced. But savvy audiences are less easily bamboozled. We’ve seen recognizable actors play ghoulish serial killers many times before; heartthrob Zac Efron played Ted Bundy for Netflix, and in the BBC’s Four Lives, Stephen Merchant played Stephen Port, another bookish-looking man who raped and killed young gay men, in another series framed primarily – and, it must be said, more sensitively – around the victims.
But you can’t accuse Dahmer of sensitivity. It’s a grim endeavor that seemingly goes out of its way to test the limits of what viewers will put up with. Presumably, it’ll be at least the ten episodes that the series runs since it’ll doubtlessly be incredibly popular and create a meme-fest on Twitter. But it made me feel a little icky, honestly.