Editor’s Note: This review originally ran during the 2012 SXSW Film Festival (when the film was titled Jeff), but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in limited theatrical release.
Documentary director Chris James Thompson would like us to remember that even serial killers have neighbors, or ride the bus, or go the pharmacy. Of course, they also kill and maim and even eat their victims or get caught, but they still have some of the same needs as everyone else. In Thompson’s Jeffrey Dahmer documentary, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, the filmmaker attempts to take us inside the mind of both Dahmer and a handful of those who surrounded him during his crimes and their aftermath. Unfortunately, the film lacks any sort of suitable or satisfying entry point for the uninitiated, and might still prove to be a bit obtuse even for those who know what they’re getting into.
As is becoming the trend, the film combines dramatic reenactments of events and interviews with people related in one way or another to the case. Thompson’s film gathers Dahmer’s former next-door neighbor Pamela Bass, former medical examiner Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, MD, and former detective Patrick Kennedy, PhD to weigh in on their various portions of Dahmer’s story. Actor Andrew Swant portrays Dahmer in the reenactments, which all seem bent on showing just how boring the serial killer was when he wasn’t actually out killing people. It’s a very en vogue way to tell the story, and somewhat necessary in order to present different angles to one of America’s most confounding and captivating killers. Unfortunately, the end result isn’t nearly as interesting as it very well should be and, with a slim 79-minute runtime, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files has more than enough time to tell more story and to uncover more information.
Thompson does, however, uncover a single jaw-dropper of an untold story, complete with a narrator who is consistently amusing and amiable to watch (so much so that it often takes a moment to recognize some of the unbelievable things he’s saying from just underneath his bushy mustache). Former Milwaukee cop Pat Kennedy was the detective who got the confession out of Dahmer – and much more. Kennedy and Dahmer formed what can only be called a very strong bond during weeks and weeks of questioning and interrogation. While Kennedy glosses over the depth of their connection, we do learn that it got to the point that his fellow cops made fun of him (consistently), he and his wife of nearly twenty years broke up during the course of the case, and he “broke down” once Dahmer was sentenced to nearly 1,000 years in prison.
In a post-screening Q&A, Thompson said that the eventual aim of The Jeffrey Dahmer Files was to document the effects that the killer had on innocent people in his life – but the film never quite reaches that point until well into its final third. By then, we’ve slogged through both somewhat numbing reenactments and some pretty compelling interview reveals, but save for Kennedy, it’s hard to feel as if any of Thompson’s other subjects have really revealed much about themselves. The Jeffrey Dahmer Files doesn’t provide enough illumination into its principal subject, but Thompson has discovered a story within his subject that is compelling, cinematic, and bizarre – all of the things that The Jeffrey Dahmer Files should have been on its own.
The Upside: Everything Pat Kennedy.
The Downside: The film is not particularly accessible to anyone without a strong base of knowledge regarding Dahmer and his crimes; the reenactments of Dahmer’s everyday life don’t add much; the entire film should be focused more on Pat Kennedy.
On the Side: Originally the film was not intended to be a documentary, but Thompson realized the two-hour cut of only mundane dramatization (inspired by Gus Van Sant’s Last Days) was too “boring.”