Friday, February 15, 2013

The Jeffrey Dahmer Files: The Serial Killer from Three Perspectives

The Milwaukee police did some of their best and worst work on the Dahmer case.  It will take decades for the department to live down the shame and notoriety stemming from the revelation two officers returned one of Dahmer’s under-aged victims to him, effectively abetting in his murder.  Yet, through the efforts of the arresting officer and the medical examiner, all of Dahmer’s horribly mutilated victims were eventually identified.  The cop, the M.E., and an oblivious neighbor revisit the serial killer and the circumstances surrounding his crimes in Chris James Thompson’s documentary The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (trailer here), which begins a week of midnight screenings tonight in New York at the IFC Center.

When Pat Kennedy dragged Dahmer into the station, he was only aware of the severed head he saw in the suspect’s refrigerator.  Winning his trust, Kennedy convinced Dahmer to waive his right to an attorney and start talking.  Initially though, the cop doubted the sanity and truthfulness of the stories he was hearing, until word reached him of the grisly remains discovered throughout Dahmer’s apartment.

Wisely, Files never invites viewers to sympathize with Dahmer.  Was he abused as a child?  Who cares?  Instead, we find ourselves empathizing with Kennedy, who became disturbed and angry with himself for feeling some limited sympathy for Dahmer, simply through the time he spent in close proximity to the murderer.  That is human nature.  Arguably, the dynamics were similar for his relationship with his neighbor Pamela Bass.  She was on friendly terms with Dahmer, even sharing food with him (including a sandwich she now wishes she never touched), even though alarming smells were emanating from his apartment.

It is possible most of the material in Files will be intimately familiar to compulsive Investigation Discovery viewers.  Yet, along with the facts of the case, scrupulously presented without sensationalism, Thompson gets at some very real aspects of human nature.  Bass, who evidently waged her own battles with the law and addiction in the early 1990’s, demonstrates the ever so human tendency towards deliberate myopia and self-deception.  Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen (the film’s other Jeffrey) is an authoritative screen presence, but he forthrightly discusses how he emotionally divorced himself from the gruesome business of murder investigations.  Kennedy would learn that lesson the hard way, readily admitting he was initially caught up in his sudden celebrity status as the “Dahmer cop” and then rather bereft by the precipitous end to such an intense and all-encompassing experience.

Despite the dramatic re-enactments of Dahmer going about his suspicious-in-retrospect daily routine (featuring co-writer Andrew Swant, who is quite a convincing cold fish as the title serial killer), Files never feels lurid or exploitative.  It is a fascinating story, well paced by Thompson.  By the standards of most contemporary docs, it is also quite cinematic.  Thompson and cinematographer Michael T. Vollmann clearly took the time to deliberately frame their shots and create their visuals, rather than just tossing together some talking heads with a grab bag of archival footage.  Recommended for both art-house doc watchers and true crime audiences, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files opens today (2/15) in New York.  It’s a day late for Valentine’s, but most New Yorkers wait to celebrate when restaurants return to their normal menu prices, so here’s your dinner and a movie suggestion.