Chris James Thompson’s unconventional documentary The Jeffrey Dahmer Files isn’t what most people might consider a prime example of the genre, but for anyone fascinated by one of the most notorious serial killers in American history, it does occasionally make for compelling viewing.
In July of 1991, Dahmer was arrested after one of his intended victims made a daring escape. In the days and months that followed, newspapers around the world offered shocking accounts of necrophilia and cannibalism committed by a madman who had slowly succumbed to his darkest desires. When Dahmer's two-week trial came to an end, the court found him sane and guilty on 15 counts of murder. In Wisconsin, a state without capital punishment, his sentence was as stiff as many had expected: 15 life terms for a total of 957 years in prison. In this film, Thompson paints a vivid portrait of a monster in human skin as he contrasts depictions of Dahmer's everyday life against interviews with his former neighbor Pamela Bass, police detective Patrick Kennedy, and medical examiner Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen.
Opening with a shot of a glassy-eyed Dahmer in a pet store, seemingly lost in thought as a tank full of piranha feed on a handful of goldfish, the film casually drifts into a conversation with Dr. Jentzen about the relative impact of disasters. In this interview, Thompson offers compelling insight into the psychological effects that a tragedy such as the Dahmer case can have on the surrounding community. Immediately jumping to an interview with Detective Kennedy as he discusses human response in the face of danger, it’s apparent that Thompson is more interested in the psychology of the Dahmer case than the gruesome facts so heavily exploited by the mainstream media. Additional interviews with the serial killer’s former neighbor Bass, who goes as far as to call Dahmer “kindhearted” early on, confirm this, and the director does a fine job of making these disparate conversations flow together smoothly and naturally. So while precious few of the facts and observations here are revelatory when it comes to the psychology of a serial killer or Dahmer himself, the subjects manage to paint a compelling portrait of the national climate of the time and the residual effects of the crimes on the people directly involved with the perpetrator and investigation. And while some of the more disturbing details of Dahmer’s crimes are detailed quite vividly as Detective Kennedy and Dr. Jentzen discuss their research, they’re hardly the focal point of this film, and they serve primarily to put the conversations in a sociological context that highlights the impact of these crimes on society.
Through it all, Thompson continually cuts to reenactments of Dahmer drinking alone, wandering the streets of Milwaukee, and purchasing the various items that he would use in his crimes. The point seems to be that evil can pass right before our eyes on a daily basis, and go unnoticed until it’s too late. Yet the truth is, despite the impressive attention to detail, these scenes often feel like padding -- especially in the case of a hotel scene in which we’re treated to a shot of an empty hallway for nearly 30 seconds as Dahmer ostensibly stuffs a corpse into a suitcase just out of sight. In fairness to the filmmaker, that’s about as close as The Jeffrey Dahmer Files gets to exploitation. This could have easily turned into a far more lurid affair, but by showing restraint, Thompson manages to keep the focus of his movie on his subjects and their experiences. Considering the frequent reenactments and the fact that the film clocks in at just 76 minutes, some might suspect that the interviewees couldn’t possibly get into the details in a way that would leave a lasting impression; however, by limiting the number of subjects to three and editing their comments with an ear for efficiency, Thompson does a commendable job of making his points without overstaying his welcome. Given a bigger budget and better resources, it would be very interesting to see his take on some other controversial cases.
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