Saturday, May 11, 2013

Review: The Jeffrey Dahmer Files

Version I Saw: Saw it at the Wisconsin Film Festival with an introduction by the filmmakers.

History: The film is as indie as it can be in a modern perspective. It was funded the old fashioned way, by begging for it from investors. Because of this the film took a few years to put together before it was able to hit the festival circuit. The film premiered at the SXSW film festival with a positive response. It would eventually be picked up by IFC Films where it would continue to circulate to different film festivals. It would eventually receive a mass release but only through VOD. Overall it has received generally positive reviews.

Personal History: I knew nothing about this going in. All I really thought it was, was a Dahmer documentary like anyone would expect. Lucky for me I got something totally different making it a better experience!

Review: I actually had the opportunity to see this at the Wisconsin Film Festival a few weeks ago so the movie-going experience for this one was unique to begin with. It was held in a screening room on the UW-Madison campus and we were crammed in there like sardines. Not only that but the director of the film was there to introduce the film. And the thing is that a lot of the people involved in it weren't from Hollywood. Many of them are Madison natives or at least Wisconsin natives. Provided a very unique experience because it was close to home. And in this case not just the subject matter but also in the people who made it.

Since this was a film festival not only was it introduced by the director but there was also an unrelated short that came before the movie. This short (I don't remember what it's called) was so horrendously bad. I know that I've made better movies than this. If I can remember it all I would like to describe it to you. It starts off with some shots around what looks like a farm area at dusk with an inaudible voice over. Cut to a stationary shot of a parade that only changes angles every couple of minutes with no additional editing to make it faster paced or more interesting. It felt like a home video of this small town parade. And it just kept going and going. After the parade portion is FINALLY finished it cuts to some kid playing with a toy airplane in a field with some stupid orange filter over it. Cut to a shot of a TV showing footage of footage of some astronauts in a space station (as in real footage not a movie) but it looks terrible because you can see the camera man reflected in the TV screen. Then it ends with an awkwardly long time spent on a recorded image from some program on a computer involving a helicopter or something. I don't know what it was and I don't care. That's it. There was some clapping I think out of pity. I did not clap. It was garbage. It felt like an "experimental" film done by a high school student who was trying way too hard to be interesting. It had no point to it and no redeeming value outside of it ending.

Thankfully the feature I paid to see was a lot better!

The Jeffrey Dahmer Files is different than your usual Dahmer documentary. It pulls away and assumes what you already know so it can take on a different perspective. It doesn't glamorize all the violence but is instead more of a character study. The documentary is essentially interviews with three different people who were closely associated with Dahmer. The police detective that worked on his case, the coroner who worked on identifying the bodies and finding their cause of death, and Dahmer's neighbor. Having only these people be the focus of the film was incredible. And it was great cause since there's hours upon hours of documentaries on Dahmer it didn't need to be the basics. This actually provided something of a human connection to the man and at times even make you feel some pity.
The documentary actually starts out, though, with a re-enactment. And these re-enactments run parallel throughout the movie. Not necessarily just to re-enact what we were just told, but almost like a mini-movie in and of itself to show maybe what wasn't said entirely. For example, one night Dahmer hid in a department store and when they closed he stole a manikin to take it home to do with it whatever you can imagine. That was one of the re-enacted scenes. When I first saw that there were going to be re-enactments I was really bummed out because they're usually not that well done. But the filmmakers knew what they were doing here because it was really well done. Also it didn't put any sort of focus on the violence. In these re-enactments they never actually show a kill. They show when he's intending to kill or just after, but never anything vulgar or violent. It's all insinuated. It was a very classy move to let you focus in on the story of this mad-man more intellectually instead of just thinking about the gory scene when he murdered and chopped up person A, B, or C.
And that's what this movie was, classy. It took itself seriously but not pretentiously seriously. It wasn't afraid to make you laugh with some of the awkward situations the interviewees talked about. One quick example of this is when Dahmer needed to show up in court but he didn't have any dress clothes, so the detective on the case asked for some clothes from his son because he was the same size. His son handed him a shirt and said "You got me this for Christmas but I'm never gonna wear it so take it." or something to that extent. It was a pretty funny story to be honest. But also it just showed a much more human perspective of the murders instead of turning Dahmer into another version of Jason Voorhees. I mean, his neighbor said that she considered him her friend before he got caught. She had no idea what was going through his mind or what he was doing. So when he was caught she felt used and betrayed. It was very powerful to hear her stories especially.

Now I don't want to make it sound like I'm justifying Dahmer's actions or saying he's not a bad dude cause what he did was horrifying. I'm saying that this specific portrayal brought him down to a level like you and I instead of turning him into a supernatural monster in a horror movie. Cause in the end he was another person. A human life that unfortunately went down a horrible path that resulted in the loss of many lives, almost 20. Honestly by the end of the documentary I didn't feel hate nor did I feel horror. The doc made me sad. It took him down from the wild level that he was presented as and showed you how human he was and how he wasn't exactly evil, just very unstable with a bizarre hobby I guess you could say. The woman who was his neighbor had done some time in jail, one time in particular when Dahmer was killed in jail. She talked about how when the news announced his death everyone was cheering, hugging, looking very excited. She on the other hand went back into her cell and cried. It was very human of her to react that way so naturally. Cause as I said before, Dahmer was a man like you and I. It's just that the choices he made in his life were very bad crimes. We all wish it never happen but unfortunately it did. But who are we to say who lives and who dies? I don't personally ever rejoice in anyone's death. Not even when Bin Laden was hunted down. I just sit and wish they made better decisions with their life. I want them punished for their crimes, but I never advocate death on anyone.
Wow, things got a bit political there. But what I'm trying to get across is that this documentary gives a different perspective that will actually tug at your heart strings for what happened in ways you didn't expect. His neighbor called him friend and told stories about what he was like before he was caught for murder. The detective had a bizarre, special connection to him while he was being prosecuted. And while the coroner didn't have the same personal connection he still had experienced one of his most unique cases and brought forth details not as well known as others about the victims. I wish there were more documentaries like this. Docs that take well known subject matter but look at things that either weren't talked about as much or at all. It was very concentrated. It knew what it wanted to be and it achieved that. Also it wasn't vulgar. It didn't feel it needed to have gore to express itself. It succeeded on so many levels, and at only 75 minutes it doesn't overstay it's welcome. If anything it left you wanting more. I know I did, and luckily I got what I wanted.
At the screening I saw this at there was a Q&A afterwords. I knew the filmmakers would be there, but what I didn't know was that 2 of the 3 people that were focused on would be present. Dahmer's neighbor and the detective appeared live to answer questions. What a special treat that was. Here are these people we just got to know so well over the last 75 minutes so when they entered the room it felt like I was seeing old friends even thought I didn't know who they were until that day. The Q&A basically expanded on a lot of the details touched on in the movie while giving us a behind the scenes look at it as well. It was all very fascinating to listen to both in the movie and live. One other thing to add onto this was a strange coincidence. I recently got an e-mail for an obituary that I'll link right here. The detective on the case passed away very suddenly from a heart attack within a week and a half of this screening. I was sad to read that cause he seemed like such a neat guy. Also it was eerie because I had just seen him live so recently. Kinda hard to believe it was so sudden.

I realize I had a bit of a biased opinion because I had such a unique experience. But seriously, if you have any sort of interest or fascination with criminals or the like I would suggest watching this title. The re-enactments are surprisingly well done and are brief each time they come up. Overall this has to be the most unique documentary I've seen probably since Death of a President. Although that was a faux-documentary. A really well done one, though. Maybe I should review that next...

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