This Netflix serial killer biopic is an uncomfortable but irresistible watch

Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is Netflix’s most controversial show to date, an exploration into the mind of one of America's most notorious serial killers

Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story
(Image credit: Netflix)

Dahmer is a hard watch, but it’s even harder to turn away from the screen. That’s because we love watching serial killer shows. Showrunner, Ryan Murphy knows this. From his work with American Horror Story, The Watcher, Ratched and American Crime Story, he has proved time and time again that he understands perfectly what people want and no matter how divisive or unpalatable, he will bring this to the screen. 

Exclusive to Netflix, the show brings one of America's most notorious serial killers to the screen with a level of curiosity and investigation, and gives the viewer a glance inside the mind of the man. Dahmer deals well with his history, brings up the idea of nature versus nurture, and decides (correctly) not to glamourise the actual physical killings as would have been so easy to do.

What is Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story about?

Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is Murphy’s take on the serial killer genre, with a focus on the early 90s killings of 17 young men around the Milwaukee area and Jeffrey Dahmer, the man responsible for these. Running at 10 episodes (a series as ridiculously stretched out as the very title itself) the show brings us Dahmer’s childhood, his unstable home life, his repressed sexuality, his failure to maintain professional and personal relationships, the struggle to contain his urges and the barely concealed issues seemingly ignored by parents, police, educators, and literally anyone who came into contact with him.

Dahmer is a tragedy waiting to happen and the series shows this as he moves on from a curious and introverted child to the ‘monster’ that we see trawling gay bars looking for his victims in the early 90s, and then finally as a seemingly repentant character looking for god and salvation towards his last days.

Each episode shows a snapshot of a particular time or formative event in his life that we get to share, whether we like it or not. Certain victims such as Tony Hughes (Rodney Burford), Dahmer’s on-off deaf boyfriend have focus placed on them but most fall into a backdrop of horror as they become simply part of his number. 

At a time when there was widespread racism and homophobia among law enforcement in the US, no interest was given to certain groups or communities. This allowed Dahmer to hunt seemingly without any kind of risk of capture. 

Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story

(Image credit: Netflix)

Who is in it?

A show like this will rise or fall based on its central character and Dahmer in this respect is blessed with a stunning performance from Evan Peters (American Horror Story, Mare Of Easttown, Wandavision). 

Peters fully controls the screen with a pitch-perfect version of Dahmer that brings to life the confusion, the rage, the sadness and the cunning lethality he embodied. Having seen many interviews with the real Dahmer, I have to say that Peters has it nailed down. He can be pathetic and terrifying in the same scene and at no point does the performance become a parody of the man. It is naturalistic and confident and I would hope that when award season comes around his name deserves at least a mention.

He is supported in the series mostly by Richard Jenkins who plays Dahmer’s father, Lionel. A hugely conflicted man, Lionel Dahmer is caught between loving his son and facing up to what he is; learning to accept the horror of the situation while at the same time grieving the loss. 

Jenkins is a prolific character actor and this shows through in a perfectly nuanced performance. A broken man who never admits to this, Lionel keeps the faith and love for his son, even when faced with public outrage, personal scrutiny and the overwhelming evidence that his son is the monster that people believe him to be.

Special note must be given to Niecy Nash who stands out in her role as Glenda Cleveland, Dahmer’s neighbour who tried, mostly in vain, to alert people to what was going on and tried unsuccessfully to save lives. Nash is a powerhouse and dominates her scenes. She is raw, believable and honest, a real talent. 

Dahmer

(Image credit: Netflix)

The issue with Dahmer

Earlier this year, the Pammy And Tommy biopic series ran into issues due to the lack of involvement and consent from one of the show's main characters, Pamela Anderson. The Jeffrey Dahmer Story has the same issue. It seems that during production there was no consultation with the families of Dahmer’s victims. Ryan Murphy claims they reached out and got no reply, but the families refute this. 

Without the families’ involvement, it can become a very one-sided production. The show's writers can control the facts of a situation to create an interesting and screen-worthy narrative, rather than the truth of what actually happened. 

While this can add to the drama and appeal of the show it removes the credibility of real events and eventually leads to the glamorisation and possible glorification of Dahmer and his killings. Instead of him being a figure to be hated and reviled, we see him in a human and flawed light. The focus becomes his inner struggle to be understood and accepted.

Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story

(Image credit: Netflix)

Should I watch Dahmer?

Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is a solid, well-produced, directed and written show. Running at 10 episodes though, the series is way too long and stretched out. I feel the show would have been better served with a tighter focus on events and cutting back on episodes, which felt like filler in many cases.

Despite its issues, I do believe this is a very solid watch. It should be taken as a character study of the glamourisation of murder through the press and public opinion, where the killer is elevated to stardom while the victims become nothing more than a forgotten and unimportant plot device. 

Netflix has proved time and again that true crime stories are hugely popular with its audience. We are it seems, fascinated by serial killers and in that regard, Dahmer delivers exactly what we're looking for. 

Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is available now in full on Netflix

Liverpool lad, mid-life crisis survivor, writer of short fiction, screenplays, articles, reviews and opinion pieces. Brian is totally in love with cinema in all its many forms. He writes for websites, blogs and published magazines, including Screen Rant, IGN and Purple Revolver in the constant hope it will help him avoid getting a real grown-up job. In his free time, he's a gym obsessive and previously good guitarist.