Section: Arts

Review: New mini series dramatizes Jeffrey Dahmer’s life

In Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, Ryan Murphy has created a limited series containing all we expect from this genre: exploitative gore, slight social commentary, ironic filming and often trite dialogue. Further, ethical concerns abound regarding a show that focuses on the life of one of the worst serial killers in history, and audiences may be left uncomfortable with the use of Dahmer as a protagonist. With a spectacular performance by Evan Peters in the title role, however, Dahmer is elevated above the level of more recent Murphy projects such as American Horror Stories and Ratched

One has to wonder why Murphy continues to create shows centered on serial killers. Dahmer has much in common with his 2018 limited series American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, as both shows tread the line of overly humanizing their lead serial killers. Protagonists must be, if not relatable, understandable. In this way, the serial killer biopic has always been tricky: Should directors really try to humanize and give a voice to their protagonist when that protagonist was a real person who brutalized and killed 17 men? Eric Perry, the cousin of Errol Lindsey, who Dahmer murdered in 1991, tweeted after the release of the show: “I’m not telling anyone what to watch, I know true crime media is huge [right now], but if you’re actually curious about the victims, my family … [is] pissed about this show. It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?”

Murphy does not shy away from giving the spotlight to Dahmer. Parental neglect, possible brain disorders from surgery or fetal abuse, inherited mental illness and general loneliness and rejection are all theories posited by Murphy and the show’s various characters for Dahmer’s compulsions. Additionally, the audience learns from fictionalized versions of interviews conducted after his arrest that Dahmer apparently did not want his victims to suffer. By trying to understand the mind of a serial killer, that killer is automatically given a platform to explain themself, to prove they had reasons for their crimes, especially with a man such as Dahmer who was quite verbose after his arrest. 

Evan Peters is an incredible actor. He looks and acts like Dahmer and gives a compelling performance of insanity and desperation. Peters’ looks, which have captivated audiences since his role as heartthrob murderer Tate Langdon in the first season of American Horror Story, do raise the question of why directors continue to cast highly good-looking, charismatic men in the roles of sociopaths. 

Murphy does succeed in showcasing victims’ stories, particularly in episode six, “Silenced,” where we follow Tony Hughes, portrayed by Rodney Burford, a deaf and mute aspiring African American model who Dahmer murdered in 1991. Audiences are allowed to see the life of this victim outside of his time in Dahmer’s world: his connection with his family, his struggles with finding a relationship while deaf, his life as part of the 1990s gay community amid the AIDS epidemic, his career aspirations and his hopes for love. This portrait of a wonderful, fully developed young man who was cut down when his life was just beginning is a highlight of the show. Hughes’ story would have been interesting in and of itself had he not met Dahmer, but, in the context of the series, his narrative also allows the audience to see the effects of the killings as more than just body parts disintegrating in acid and instead as a stifling of flourishing humanity, love and creativity.

Excluding Richard Jenkins’ gripping interpretation of Lionel Dahmer, Murphy, as usual, prefers melodramatic acting and did not get great performances from his supporting actors. Scenes with Dahmer’s mother, neighbor Glenda Cleveland and other minor roles were trite. With Peters as its star, however, this does not take away from the show as much as it does in some of Murphy’s worst-acted projects such as Ratched or American Horror Stories. Dahmer is a well-done series, with a spectacular performance by Peters, but I still have doubts about whether it should have been made in the first place. Our society is obsessed with true crime, serial killers and explaining seemingly random and illogical violence. However, are we finding answers through Ryan Murphy’s exploitative horror series, or are we just entertaining ourselves with the victims’ pain and giving a voice to the hand of violence?


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