Dahmer is a 2002 American semi-biographical film starring Jeremy Renner as the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who drugged and killed at least 17 men and boys, and ate parts of some of them, giving him the title in the popular press after his arrest of “The Milwaukee Cannibal”. Dahmer (the man, not the movie) became perhaps the best-known modern real-life cannibal, not because he killed or ate more people than, for example, Andre Chikatilo, the “Rostov Ripper”, but perhaps because he did it in the belly of the beast, the consumer society of the USA.
The film shows two timelines; the story starts with a couple of days in the life of Dahmer before his arrest; the flashbacks show the evolution of his murderous career.
As the film begins, there are pools of – not blood – chocolate! Jeffrey Dahmer works in a candy factory in metropolitan Milwaukee. Enduring crippling shyness, partly due to his overbearing and intolerant father, he slips into alcohol abuse, drugs, and murder. In his flashbacks, he frequents gay clubs, but can only have sex with young men who have been rendered unconscious by mixing barbiturates into their drinks. Leaving a string of unconscious and sodomised men in the hourly rent rooms, he is caught by the barman, beaten and thrown out. The lesson he seems to draw: everything’s easier at home.
Dahmer’s M.O. was to lure young men to his home, drug them with pills crushed into their rum and Coke, and then conduct experiments involving drilling holes in his their heads and pouring in acid, trying to create living zombies, partners who would never leave him. Cannibalism was a further attempt to achieve the same ends – rather than keeping their bodies with him, he hoped to keep their bodies inside him. Incorporation as love.
Although the script recreates actual events, the names of the victims were changed out of respect for the families. Some time is spent on the case of Khamtay, who is drugged and has a hole drilled in his head and acid injected into his brain. This really happened, except the young man was really a 14-year-old boy named Konerak Sinthasomphone. Like Khamtay in the film, he wandered out of the apartment while Dahmer was out buying booze, and was picked up by the police. When Dahmer came around the corner, he persuaded the police that the boy was his drunken boy-friend, and they helpfully delivered the child back to the apartment, where he was subsequently killed.
Dahmer received mixed reviews. It currently holds a 68% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Entertainment Weekly said “It lets you brush up against the humanity of a psycho, without making him any less psycho.” Most reviews, even those that did not like the film, praised the performance of Jeremy Renner. In fact, Kathryn Bigelow said that she cast Renner in The Hurt Locker because of his performance in Dahmer.
Chocolate, pooled, shaped and incorporated, is a continuing image throughout the film. Chocolate typifies our consumer fetishism: it is purely pleasurable (I keep hearing that the dark version is good for us, but my dentist disagrees). People love chocolate. The hypnotic pull of continuous, voracious and escalating consumption drives our society. When commodities run out, or try to escape, then incorporation, Dahmer argues, is the only solution. He cannot give up his nightly hunting sessions, even when he makes an emotional connection to a victim, any more than the rest of us can give up chocolate. Rejecting his family’s intolerant religiosity, he argues that he is not weird: “What’s weird is when you go to church and they make you eat Christ’s body and drink his blood”.
There is remarkably little gore in the film and surprisingly no mention of what made Dahmer so famous: his cannibalism. The violence is mainly in Dahmer’s words. He projects his own pain onto his intended victims. His last intended victim, Rodney (whose name in real life was Tracy Edwards), offers real affection and the possibility of a loving relationship to Dahmer, who projects his own pain back onto this gentle young man.
“You’re pissed at everyone because you’re gay. Everyone laughs at you. Shits on you.”
Yet Rodney returns opposite, loving words: “You’re beautiful. You’re tall, you’re strong, but gentle. I always dreamed about somebody – just like that.” But Dahmer cannot accept love (also there is the problem of the corpse of Khamtay in his bedroom). He responds to Rodney: “I am a pervert. I am an exhibitionist. I am a masturbator. And a killer. Like you”.
Dahmer is the incarnation of Bataille’s “accursed share” – the segment of production that must and will be spent on sex, destruction, sacrifice.
The victim is a surplus taken from the mass of useful wealth. And he can only be withdrawn from it in order to be consumed profitlessly, and therefore utterly destroyed. Once chosen, he is the accursed share, destined for violent consumption. But the curse tears him away from the order of things; it gives him a recognizable figure, which now radiates intimacy, anguish, the profundity of living beings.
Yet there is no power in hidden destruction; power for the giver is in the obligation of the receiver to reciprocate. So Dahmer is driven by the need to be caught. Not because he wants to be stopped, but so that he can be celebrated. Rodney escapes, after Dahmer cannot go through with his attempt to strangle him. The real-life victim, Tracy, led the police back to Dahmer’s lair, where they found much more than they expected.
The real Jeffrey Dahmer was not celebrated either, although he did receive several offers of marriage while awaiting trial (from women who, like his father, seemed to have no understanding of his sexual preferences). In 1992, he was handed a 937 year sentence, subsequently became a born again Christian in prison, and then in 1994 had his head caved in by a fellow prisoner with a metal bar.
The killer told a prison guard “God told me to do it”.
11 thoughts on “The American Nightmare: “Dahmer” (Jacobson, 2002)”
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