Directed by: Chris James Thompson.
Written by: Chris James Thompson and Andrew Swant and Joe Riepenhoff.
Starring: Andrew Swant (Jeffrey Dahmer), Pamela Bass (Herself – Neighbor), Jeffrey Jentzen (Himself - Medical Examiner), Pat Kennedy (Himself – Detective).
If you know nothing about Jeffrey Dahmer, than The Jeffrey Dahmer Files is not the place to start. The film assumes you know something about Dahmer – one of America’s most infamous serial killers who murdered 17 men and boys from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. His crimes shocked America, not only because of the number he killed, but also the rape, cannibalism, dismemberment and necrophilia that was involved. The movie assumes you already know a lot about Dahmer before you watch the film. This is not a documentary that recounts the details of his crimes – I don’t think any victim’s name is directly mentioned. Instead the movie intercuts interviews with three people – Dahmer’s neighbor Pamela Bass, Detective Pat Kennedy, who got the Dahmer confession, and Medical Examiner Jeffrey Jentzen, who performed the autopsies and examined the remains – and scenes of Dahmer (played by Andrew Swant) going about his day-to-day life, which is exceedingly creepy, for example, in a scene where he picks up a large plastic drum and takes it home on the bus when you know just what his plans with that drum are. In that regard, it is a strangely fascinating movie.
The film is creepy pretty much from beginning to end. There is something odd about Jentzen, the only one of the three interview subjects who reveals nothing of himself through the course of the movie. He is very matter of fact about everything he did and saw and examined. Perhaps it’s just professionalism, but it comes across as cold and rather heartless – which is perhaps what you need to be a medical examiner. More fascinating is Pamela Bass, who recounts her interactions with Dahmer – she remembers him as a nice, quiet young man, who like seemingly all serial killers “kept to himself” mostly. The case affected her greatly when she finally realized what was going on just across the hall from her apartment – and she wonders what exactly was in that sandwich that Dahmer gave her. The “star” of the movie though is Kennedy, who reveals more of himself than most cops in documentaries like this than I can recall seeing. He admits that he went on an ego trip when he became semi-famous for being the “Dahmer cop” after he got a confession out of him – which didn’t take very much prodding – and also admits that that ego trip cost him a lot personally. He also admits that in some ways, he missed talking with Dahmer – who was respectful to him during the whole process.
The re-enactment scenes are chilling because of how matter of fact they are. No matter what Dahmer is doing in these scenes – from buying the barrel to buying pet food to drinking a beer to going up stairs to a hotel room with someone who will become one of his victims (the murder is never shown – the movie shows no blood or gore at all, in an attempt not to sensationalize the events) is shot in the same style, flat style. Swant gives a fine performance as Dahmer, the outwardly quiet, while inwardly insane, man who doesn’t leave an impression on anyone – until he leaves an impression on everyone.
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files is a fascinating, if not altogether successful, movie. The film is very narrowly focused – perhaps too narrowly for its good. And as good as Swant is, he is never really given a chance to explore Dahmer. Jeremy Renner delivered a brilliantly performance in 2002’s Dahmer, another non-sensationalized film about Dahmer, which showed us Dahmer’s humanity, but never the less made it quite clear he was still a monster – just a very human monster. That film, which is criminally underseen, would be a better one to see about Dahmer. But if his case fascinates you, than The Jeffrey Dahmer Files is for you – if for not that many others.