To his neighbors in the Oxford Apartments of Milwaukee, Wis., Jeffrey Dahmer was a quiet man — a quiet but polite man who kept to himself, did not really go out much and preferred to bring guests back to his place. However, that seemingly idyllic facade quickly disappeared on July 22, 1991. On that night, a tip led police to an apartment filled with refrigerators containing severed heads, boxes full of genitalia and piles of limbs. By the time the apartment was painstakingly cleared and the suspect charged, the entire country knew Dahmer’s name.
Blending police archival footage and interviews with dramatizations of the notorious serial killer’s everyday life, “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” takes a radical approach to Dahmer’s story — turning down the whodunit aspect of the piece to tell the story in cinema verite.
The dramatizations within director Chris James Thompson’s documentary are not those one would typically expect from crime re-enactments. They are arresting in their own fashion and a tiny wonder to behold. Andrew Swant portrays the infamous serial killer with a performance so subtle and naturalistic that it may shock some viewers when they remember it is only a performance.
Tied in with stories of Dahmer’s everyday life are the stories of three crucial figures in the case: medical examiner Jeffrey Jentzen, retired Milwaukee police detective Pat Kennedy and, most fascinatingly, Dahmer’s former neighbor, Pamela Bass. While Jentzen’s role exists to provide the traditional myster story as the examiner taking a scientific approach to identifying bodies, in the end it is Kennedy whose story ends up capturing the audience.
Kennedy quickly rose to fame after Dahmer’s arrest. He was praised as a hero but simultaneously speculated about because of his ability to coax information out of Dahmer. However, Kennedy countered these accusations by presenting a vibrant and truthful retelling of the events of that summer.
While Kennedy’s story captured public interest in a positive way, it is the story of Pamela Bass that proves to be the most devastating. Her retelling of the events immediately after Dahmer’s arrest portray Oxford Apartments as a quiet, unassuming building complex thrust into the spotlight — for better or worse — as the most recognizable apartment complex in the country.
Bold in realization but startling in effect, “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” proves to be more than just a simple whodunit –— it valiantly attempts to explore the psychology behind Dahmer’s crime.
Charlie Spector is a contributing writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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