Dahmer Review: Ryan Murphy’s Serial Killer Drama Puts the Victims First

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The Pitch: What often gets lost in the lurid stories of America’s most infamous serial killers is how profoundly they expose the cracks in our democracy. Such is the case for Jeffrey Dahmer (Evan Peters), a lonely and disturbed young man who murdered and dismembered 17 young men between the years of 1978 and 1991.

The horrific details of those murders gained Dahmer immediate fame when he was finally arrested in 1991 and eventually sentenced to 16 terms of life imprisonment: this was a necrophiliac, a cannibalistic child molester, a gay man who drugged and killed other gay men at the height of the AIDS epidemic. When the Milwaukee Police Department searched Dahmer’s apartment, they found so many severed body parts that the chief medical examiner described the experience as “more like dismantling someone’s museum than an actual crime scene.”

In the 28 years since Dahmer was beaten to death by a fellow inmate in prison, he’s remained a recognizable figure in the public American consciousness; every few years, a new movie or TV series premieres, with a new actor debuting his take on the Milwaukee Cannibal. But focusing our perverse fascination simply on what Dahmer did to those people misses the larger implications of his story. What sometimes goes unrecognized is the racial makeup of his victims, the majority of whom were Black or brown, and how that cultural divide allowed Dahmer to get the benefit of the doubt for so long.

A Focus on the Victims: Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s new Netflix miniseries Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (yes, that’s the full title) aims to shine a light on Dahmer’s victims, showcasing points of view that have typically been ignored. It’s an admirable goal, and it gets there eventually… after around half the series.

But the competent first five episodes, presenting a non-linear but still fairly straightforward biography of Dahmer up to his arrest, make for a bit of a slog, as many of these stories have already been told before on screen, particularly in 2002’s Dahmer and 2017’s My Friend Dahmer.

That a white man like Jeff Dahmer was able to get away with this is telling — and it’s telling that his name is so ingrained in our minds while so many Black bystanders and neighbors, like the late Glenda Cleveland (Niecy Nash), tried to warn the police and were repeatedly ignored.

Questions about the role of police in American society, and whether the institution itself is fundamentally broken, have only gained strength in the years since Dahmer’s arrest. Take John Balcerzak, a cop who, along with his partner, was briefly fired for delivering a drugged 14-year-old directly back to Dahmer’s apartment after the kid’s escape — only to be reinstated. Balcerzak even became president of the Milwaukee Police Association, working until his retirement in 2017. Jeffrey Dahmer may be gone, but the broken systems that did nothing to stop him still thrive today.

Murder Most Foul: Make no mistake, Evan Peters is in fine form here, playing a role he was probably destined to play since Murphy first cast him as the ghost of a school shooter in American Horror Story: Murder House. With Peters’s vacant expressions and unassuming look, Dahmer has the impression of someone vaguely confused but curious about the world he lives in. And in the horror-movie sequences where we see Dahmer toy with his prey, he conveys real instability, a dreamy alcohol-induced lack of focus that makes his coercions even more unnerving, almost casual.

Dahmer Evan Peters Netflix Review
Dahmer Evan Peters Netflix Review

Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (Netflix)

Monster is only occasionally gory, often forgoing on-screen violence to linger in the intensely uncomfortable lead-up to the inevitable mask-off moment. The very first episode, set in 1991, devotes its 50 minutes to the case study of one man Dahmer brings home to photograph and kill: Tracy Edwards, the man who managed to escape and save himself from becoming Dahmer’s final victim, successfully alerting the police.

The attack that plays out in Episode 2, “Please Don’t Go,” has a less pleasant ending, and is therefore harder to watch; Dahmer’s victim is the 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone, a boy whose older brother Dahmer molested three years prior. But as these first five episodes go on, they become numbing, following a familiar pattern of broad-strokes biography in the first half and nightmarish depravity in the second, with some near-misses with law enforcement scattered throughout.

Monster rarely shoots for dark humor in its depiction of the man’s heinous acts, which is for the best. But while the subject is treated with the seriousness it deserves, I found myself craving a wider range of tone. During the depiction of Dahmer’s teen years, for example, there’s very little of the class-clown tomfoolery that made My Friend Dahmer work oddly well as a teen movie.

The People v. Jeffrey Dahmer: Luckily, Monster starts widening its scope around the halfway point, spending longer stretches of time with those affected by this one man. As a result, the latter half of the season is easily superior. It becomes a true ensemble series, looking at the Dahmer story from every angle, with a level of nuance and ambition reminiscent of Murphy’s work on American Crime Story.

And while the later episodes’ narrative is somewhat more free-floating on an ensemble level, spending time with new supporting characters like the mayor and police chief of Milwaukee, it helps to be firmly planted in the “present-day” post-arrest timeline. The episodic structure tightens up, devoting heartbreaking stories to characters like Dahmer’s father Lionel (complexly brought to life by Richard Jenkins) and his neighbor Glenda. Glenda’s experience — that of someone who could literally hear the sounds of murder and dismemberment from her living room, yet was repeatedly proven powerless to stop it — is uniquely disturbing, and Nash makes her emotional journey fully involving.

But the series is never better than in its sixth episode, “Silenced,” directed by Paris Barclay and written by David McMillan and Janet Mock. It’s the first extended period of screen-time without Peters; instead, we follow Tony Hughes (Rodney Burnford, instantly endearing), a gay Black model frustrated with the difficulties of dating while deaf. Dahmer finally re-enters the picture as an odd sort of romantic lead, with the episode evoking the possibility of Tony being enough to “fix” him. But we know how this ends, which makes it even tougher to watch play out.

The Verdict: Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story smartly sidesteps common pitfalls of the true-crime genre, acknowledging the perspective of Jeff Dahmer’s victims and their families in more depth than possibly any other on-screen depiction. It makes for a horrifying and occasionally emotional story, and it immediately becomes more engrossing once it starts exploring the basic inequalities that allowed Dahmer to get away with so much.

“Looking at you right now, you remind me a lot of my grandson,” a white judge tells Dahmer in one episode, after he has pleaded guilty to charges of sexual assault. The testimony of the Laotian immigrant family whose son was traumatized by Dahmer goes barely acknowledged, as will the disappearance of their other son in a couple years.

But the judge only has eyes for one redemption story. “He had a problem with alcohol, but he turned it around. You are not the kind of guy who belongs in the correctional system, okay?” The most incisive aspect of Monster, when you get past the stretches of tedium, is its ability to remind you who exactly this country believes that “kind of guy” is. 

Where to Watch: Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is now streaming on Netflix.


Dahmer Review: Ryan Murphy’s Serial Killer Drama Puts the Victims First
Ben Rosenstock

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