SXSW 2012: ‘Jeff’ offers a unique perspective on the Dahmer horrors

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Directed by Chris James Thompson
Written by Chris James Thompson and Andrew Swant
2012, USA

The opening frames of Jeff, which linger on fish swimming in an aquarium as Jeffrey Dahmer (Andrew Swant) admires them, suggest this film isn’t like the other documentaries. And in many ways it is not. Begun as a fictionalized account of Jeffrey Dahmer doing his errands, director Chris James Thompson eventually decided to turn the film into a documentary to make it more dynamic. His interest was not in the specifics of the case (which are mentioned off hand when at all) but in the ways everyone involved in the case was effected.

The main interviewees are Pamela Bass, Dahmer’s former neighbor, Jeffrey Jentzen, the medical examiner on the case, and Pat Kennedy, the detective assigned to the Dahmer. All are incredibly interesting interviews, with Pat Kennedy proving the most lively and entertaining presence. It’s shocking how irreversibly each of their lives has been altered because of Jeffrey Dahmer, but doubly so how much sympathy Bass and Kennedy have for him.

The biggest issue with this film is that it suggests an odder, more experimental documentary than it delivers. The fictionalized segments are interesting, and provide a soothing and often droll counterpoint to the horror of the interviews and archival footage. But they’re hampered by some stilted acting and Swant’s performance as Dahmer is a bit too flat to be truly convincing.

That aside, this documentary pulls you deep into the world of its subjects and offers a unique perspective on the Dahmer horrors. This is the kindest depiction Dahmer could ever ask for, and it’s because he’s being described by those who actually knew him. Thompson’s whole approach deserves accolades, and I look forward to whatever he is cooking up next. Jeff is interesting, dynamic, and absolutely worthwhile, but its ambition outstrips its execution.

Emmet Duff

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