I admit I was reluctant to watch this movie. I have no particular interest in serial killers and do not enjoy the suspense of waiting for horrible things to happen. It was a relief to discover that, rather than being a gorefest, Dahmer is more of an arty psychological film that explores its subject’s twisted life through a series of flashbacks nested inside an account of his last days before being arrested. There is plenty of horror, but for the most part it is implied rather than being shown on screen.
There are many striking moments in the film, but some of the most interesting are when Dahmer is afraid he is about to be caught. He doesn’t seem ashamed, exactly. It’s more like he thinks people won’t understand him and he’d rather just not deal with it. This theme is developed in a couple of revealing conversations that take place in different timeframes: one about being a rebel and how having sex with other men might or might not fit into that concept; and one about the sadistic and cannibalistic nature of Christian mythology. These exchanges convey Dahmer’s sense of disconnection from the rest of humanity — he thinks he has seen through everyone else’s bullshit and hypocrisy and has freed himself from the moral shackles of everyday people. He is so verbally uncommunicative in the rest of the film that these blasts of antisocial ideology are somehow shocking, even though we have already seen the horrific violence he’s capable of committing. They lay the groundwork for the final scene (which is a flashback), in which he deliberately rejects the option of psychological counseling in favor of heading into the woods to become a beast. Though there are moments in the movie that portray him in an almost sympathetic light, ultimately, the film does not excuse him or explain away his pathology. He is a monster — a human one, but still a monster.
Renner is shiver-inducingly good. The younger Dahmer is clearly differentiated from the older version, being more nervous, spontaneous and unguarded in his physical movements; the present-day Dahmer is controlled and almost shark-like as he pursues his targets and employs his well-honed techniques to do them in. His face as he declares to an intended victim that he is “a pervert, an exhibitionist, a masturbator, and a killer” looks both proud and bitter; you believe that he has lived (and killed) far more than the earlier version of himself. Then there are the scenes in which he gets sexy with unconscious and dead bodies. The director makes an unusual and unsettling choice to film these moments in ways that actually make them seem erotic. Dim, reddish lighting, Dahmer’s buff, half-naked body arching in ecstasy as he does the horrible things that turn him on. Artistically daring and very, very disturbing. Highly recommended, if you can stomach it.
This is not a movie about the Iraq war at large, nor does it take a position on whether we ought to have been there in the first place. Its focus is very particular: three men doing the dangerous work of disarming bombs in a chaotic, poorly-understood setting and reacting very differently to the stress.
It’s a truly great achievement on many levels. The camera work is kinetic and gripping. The pacing is unpredictable and gives a strong impression of war zone confusion, fear and intensity interspersed with periods of boredom and rough-housing. The performances of the three leads are complementary in a thematic sense, but never showy or obvious. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is an intelligent team player with a pragmatic sense of caution and little tolerance for bullshit (of the three, I identified with him the most). Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is a sensitive kid looking for reassurance and guidance from some kind of father figure. And then there’s James, the cocky replacement for their dead team leader, who poses a problem to both of them. He is technically their commanding officer, but it’s soon evident that he is a loner who focuses on getting the job done, even if it puts others in danger. He is not only uncommunicative and uncooperative, he scoffs at Sanborn’s expectations of team behavior. Explain himself? Hell, no. Shrugging people off or resorting to top dog domination are more his speed. Yet he is incredibly good at dealing with bombs. I am no expert on Explosive Ordnance Disposal, but I am guessing that his total of 800+ disarmed bombs is a crazy huge number — almost mythical. He’s a genius of IED disposal. An emotionally crippled, obsessive, warrior demigod.
Mackie and Geraghty are both very good, but Renner knocks it out of the park. (He received his first Academy Award nomination for this film.) This is a role that could easily come across as a simplistic portrait of “damaged goods” or authority gone wrong, but it never does. Instead, James swerves unpredictably, but believably, between admirable and appalling throughout the film, ending up somewhere in the middle when all is said and done. Some inappropriate outbursts of emotion show that he is not dead inside, just kind of broken. And there is one long sequence of a desert firefight where he displays an unexpected amount of solicitude and leadership ability. Yet he undeniably puts other people in danger when he shouldn’t. And he seems most open and appealing when he’s puzzling his way through the components of someone else’s homemade bomb, working against the clock to keep it from blowing him and everything around him to smithereens. Renner plays all of these angles convincingly, and the end result is a rounded portrait of a complex, occasionally heroic, but not particularly likeable or functional human being. You get some hints at what has brought James to this place (marriage troubles, a previous stint in Afghanistan), but the film wisely holds back from trying to fully explain him. If “war is a drug”, as an epigraph states at the beginning of the film, why is James an addict while Sanborn and Eldridge are not? The characters don’t know, and we don’t know. A powerful human mystery is set up, and never solved.